The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Marvin Zindler received an anonymous tip that something dirty was going on in a little country town about 60 miles east of Austin. And that's where the story began way back in 1973.
A wink between the madam and law enforcement allowed the "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" near La Grange to operate in violation of Texas law.
"Action 13 received an anonymous complaint about two alleged houses of prostitution," Marvin Zindler reported on the air in July 1973. "The complainant said the houses were operating openly in our neighboring towns of Sealy and La Grange. It's illegal to operate a house of prostitution in Texas. And past history shows they cannot function without someone in authority protecting them. I asked Eyewitness News correspondent Larry Conners to check out the report."
"Marvin, we started by getting a small van with curtains, so we could conceal Eyewitness News photographer Frank Ambrose," Larry explained as the report continued. "Ambrose, a third person and I went first to the Sealy location. What looks to be nothing more than an abandoned motel is a house of prostitution. We returned later at midnight, but I can state as a fact that prostitutes are working here."
They then drove down county gravel road 130 and around the bend just outside La Grange in Fayette county to the notorious Chicken Ranch, which had been operating for 129 years in flagrant violation of Texas law. However, we weren't out to improve the moral climate of this part of Texas.
"It's not so much that a house of prostitution which operates down here, but as to how long it has operated, why it has been able to operate so long, and who all has been involved in keeping it operating," Larry said.
Larry continued to describe the stake-out in the original 1973 television report. "Ambrose stayed in the van as a third member of our party and I went inside. I was carrying a small scope camera in my coat pocket. I was getting what pictures I could inside, while Ambrose filmed customers. Nearly three dozen came and went in a little over an hour. At one point, one of the girls spotted my camera. I was sent outside, but told I could return without the camera. I kept asking if I could buy pictures of the girls, but my request was denied. That's when we left and went back to the Sealy location."
Madam tells her story
"The next day photographer Rick Armstrong and I returned to the La Grange site, this time in a marked car. Minutes later a woman who identified herself as Edna Milton came out said she owned the house and the land. She wanted us to leave, but Armstrong remained in the car and he continued filming as I got a lengthy interview with the woman. I asked what kind of business was she running? "
"I have a boarding house here," said Ms. Milton.
"Is that all it is?" asked Connors.
"That's enough," she responded.
Connors continued probing. "You're not operating a house of prostitution?"
"Whether I am or not doesn't come under the heading of your business," Ms. Milton retorted. "I am not going to go for having a bunch of pictures unless you are definitely trying to close me personally."
"I'm not trying to close you. I want to know what you're operating here..."
"You know exactly."
"...and who's all involved in the money."
"I am involved in it and the bunch of others who are here are making it," Ms. Milton said.
"Who all gets money other than that? Any law officials? Government officials?" Connors asked.
"Certainly the federal government. Certainly they get their pint of blood for every quart you get," Ms. Milton told Connors.
There's no question that state and local law enforcement agencies know these places exist and have kept hands off. Oliver Kitzman was the District Attorney of both Fayette county, where the Chicken Ranch operated, and Austin county, where the lesser known house of prostitution, the Wagon Wheel, was located.
Marvin Zindler interviewed Mr. Kitzman for the original television report. "Are you aware of the operations of two bawdy houses that are operating both in Sealy and La Grange?"
"I think most knowledgeable people in this community have heard about those places," Kitzman replied.
"As District Attorney have you ever tried to close these places down, either in a civil injunction or by a criminal raid of any kind?"
"No, sir, frankly we have never had any indication by anyone that these places are a problem to law enforcement or otherwise."
"Have you ever accepted any protection payoffs to allow these institutions to operate?" Marvin continued questioning.
"I have not, and have never been approached," said Kitzman.
Organized crime connections?
Marvin's original report continued... The La Grange house of prostitution is located in Fayette county. T.J. Flournoy has been the sheriff in that county for 27 years, plus he was chief deputy for 13 years. Friday we raised some questions about his involvement in the La Grange operation.
"We said that last year state intelligence officers were investigating the La Grange house for possible organized crime connections," Larry Connors reported. "The agent said Sheriff Flournoy approached them near the house and his deputy held a shogun on them while the sheriff asked them what they were doing. The sheriff said the state agents were lying about being threatened with a shotgun."
Sheriff Flournoy recalled the meeting for Eyewitness News. "I said, 'Who sent you down here?' 'The boss did.' And I said, 'Who is your boss?' 'Out of Houston.' I says, 'You're with intelligence?' And he said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'It don't take a very damn intelligent man to know what's going on up there.' I said, 'Any little farm boy ought to know what's going on up there!'"
A report compiled from the files from the Department of Public Safety intelligence division revealed that local lawmen protected the bawdy house, and that on two consecutive days November 17 and 18, 1972, approximately 484 persons entered the Chicken Ranch. The report also stated that approximately 1 and 1/2 million dollars a year was spent at the ranch. There are denials from all sides.
"Sheriff, when you speak about that they, of course their figures and their information and so forth, says that the money goes out of here into bigger organized crime and that's where all the money's made. Now who is right, you or the state?" Larry Connors asked in the 1973 interview.
"The state's a God damn liar if that's what they say," Sheriff T.J. Flournoy said.
"You don't think it's linked to organized crime anywhere else?" asked Connors.
"I know damn well there's no organized crime connected in anyway whatever."
Connors questioned further. "Has your office or you or any of your deputies ever accepted any money from her or anyway like that?"
"Not a penny. No payoff anyway in the world to anybody," said Flournoy.
"Last year, I understand that the Texas Rangers did give you a call and I think they even came down and talked to you about it, and asked you to close down and you did close down for a while?" Marvin Zindler asked Flournoy in 1973.
"Well, they come down I say, 'Well I'm going to talk to Colonel Spiers.' And I did," Flournoy said. "And the Colonel told me it was just before an election, and he told me to close 'em down for a little while and take a little vacation. And I did."
State investigative agencies do know and have known about these houses and they know about the money involved but they haven't done anything. In fact, it's possible these same agencies have been protecting both houses.
Straight to the top
The wide open operation of these bawdy houses is hard to believe. So much so that I went immediately to Austin to talk to Governor Dolph Briscoe. I gave the governor the investigative reports from the Department of Public Safety.
"First I'm going to confer today with the Attorney General to determine what action his office should take and could take under the circumstances that you have presented," Governor Briscoe said. "The other thing I'm going to do is to ask the Department of Public Safety for a full report as to any information they have concerning these two operations or any other similar operations that might exist in the state of Texas."
The governor says he'll take action. He's new in office and pledged to reform. We'll see. If he gets action on these bawdy houses it will be the first time ever.
Attorney General John Hill spoke out.
"Our minds are fixed," said Hill. "Our judgment is made and we'll see that the law is enforced." So it appears D-Day for the bawdy houses in Sealy and La Grange is Thursday.
The movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas portrayed the governor as avoiding the question of prostitution and side-stepping the issue. But the real governor, Dolph Briscoe, was direct and to the point.
"Colonel Spiers I'm sure has advised you that Sheriff Flournoy today advised the Department of Public Safety that in response to Colonel Spiers' call of Monday that the Chicken Ranch at La Grange is permanently closed," the governor announced in 1973.
The deed was done. The 129-year-old Chicken Ranch was closed once and for all.
But the closing of the Chicken Ranch wasn't the end of the drama for Marvin Zindler.
David Glodt reported the news to Houstonians in 1974. "Here's what's happening this Monday night. Action 13's Marvin Zindler and his cameraman were assaulted today on the streets of La Grange by Fayette county Sheriff T.J. Flournoy."
Eighteen months after the Chicken Ranch closed, I went to La Grange to show that the business economy didn't suffer from the closing of the Chicken Ranch. But I never got to do that story. The sheriff broke my rib, ripped the film out of the camera, exposed it to the sun, but didn't know to destroy the audio track.
"Sheriff! Sheriff! Sheriff!" Marvin could be heard yelling on the partially destroyed film.
The camerman said, "Step on your brake, Marvin! Step on your brake, Marvin!"
"Get out! Get out!" ordered Sheriff Flournoy.
"It's not my fault. I was sent down here on assignment," Marvin said.
"You (profanity). You ought to (profanity)!" the sheriff hollered.
"Sheriff, don't get mad at me. Sheriff, don't do that to me. Sheriff, please Sheriff! Sheriff, stop!" Marvin pleaded.
"You son of a (profanity)!" Sheriff Flournoy responded.
"He began immediately to yell obscenities at Marvin and he began to punch Marvin," said Mark Vela, a former assistant DA. "He grabbed him and was beating his head up against the car door, the window. I was sitting in the back seat. At that point he grabbed (Marvin's) hairpiece. He was in a rage! (He) began waving the hairpiece around and threw it out in the middle of the street."
Houston attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes defended Sheriff Flournoy after I sued the sheriff.
Marvin discussed the case with Haynes years later. "Racehorse, you represented Sheriff Flournoy back then, almost 25 years ago when he broke my ribs."
"Well, now, you said he broke my ribs and you sued him. I'll assume he broke your ribs," allowed Haynes.
"Well, ok. I sued him. Was he upset with me?"
"Marvin, he not only was upset with you, he was disturbed about it," recalled Haynes. "And I don't know if you knew this, but Sheriff Flournoy was a long-time law enforcement officer. You worked with him before. He knew you, you knew him. I don't know if you knew, though, he had seven notches on his pistol handle. And they were real notches, not put there just to ensure the grip, but they were there because he had dispatched seven citizens on the other end of that revolver. And here you are joining issues against him in his own venue by taking videotape of his courthouse. So... Plus, add that to what you'd already done to him by terminating a long-established best little whorehouse in Texas. "
We settled out of court and I donated the money to charity.
The secret's out
So who really started the wheels turning for this historic event? Well, back in those days it was a courtesy for local law agencies to invite state officials into their jurisdiction to take law enforcement action. When the Fayette county District Attorney refused to invite a top Texas government official to close the Chicken Ranch, the state official became mad and said, "Let's expose them. "
When it got down to it, Flournoy and his counterpart in Austin county did close both La Grange and Sealy the easy way. They just called the madams and told them to send their girls packing. The message was clear and to the point. A homemade sign blamed Marvin Zindler for the closing.
A lot of former and prospective patrons thought I had some ulterior motive in picking on the old Chicken Ranch at La Grange and the newer model at Sealy. To them I was some sort of ogre, a killjoy. Well, I wasn't out to spoil anybody's fun or close their playpen just to improve the moral climate of this part of Texas.
Now, 25 years ago I told a little fib when I said I got into the act because of an anonymous tip. The tip was actually a phone call from the office of the Texas Attorney General John Hill.
Hill asked the chief of his organized crime division Tim James to get me involved in closing the Chicken Ranch. By 1998, James had become the Nacogdoches county District Attorney. By the way, he is also the son of Harry James, the popular big band leader of the 40's and stepson of Hollywood star Betty Grable.
James was in the office when Attorney General Hill asked Fayette county District Attorney Kitzman to close the Chicken Ranch.
"He called the District Attorney one afternoon," James recalled in 1998. "Oliver Kitzman was the District Attorney in that county and I think two adjoining counties. I was present in the office. He explained the situation. He explained the money. He explained the circuit. He explained the interest the DPS and the Attorney General had in seeing that organized crime activity was shut down. The response was, 'There's nothing that the people in this county want to do about it, Mr. Hill. There's nothing that we're going to do about it. It's not of great concern to the people who've elected me,' said the DA. And now, Marvin, I'm paraphrasing a little bit, but basically what he then said was, 'And if your or your people come down here, I'll be the one investigating you!' That's when (Attorney) General Hill suggested that we contact you."
The call actually came from a lawyer who worked for James in the Attorney General's organized crime division. Back then he had intelligence reports of payoffs, money for narcotics, gun running and other criminal activities at the Chicken Ranch. Herb Handcock got those reports by most unusual means.
"I know how I got the report was a terrible thing to say at this time," confessed Handcock years later. "I almost had to steal it because those were hid from me."
Former Texas Attorney General John Hill never really openly admitted he asked me to close the Chicken Ranch until the mid 1990s.
"We wanted to close the Chicken Ranch. There's no question about that," said Hill in 1993. "The information that we had gained through intelligence indicated that it was part of a ring, a prostitution ring."
"As the Attorney General did you think that was actually organized crime in those two houses?" Marvin asked in 1973.
"Oh, yeah," answered Hill.
"I've always thought that the news media is an absolutely indispensable organ for the public good," Hill told Marvin in 1993. "You did a great job of just throwing the limelight."
Where are they now?
What happened to all those folks who were involved in the Chicken Ranch? Here's the last we heard...
Well, former Governor Dolph Briscoe is a retired rancher living in Uvalde. He and his wife donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity each year.
Former state Attorney General John Hill is practicing law, and chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission which he's cleaned up.
Former Fayette and Austin county District Attorney Oliver Kitzman went on to become a state district judge and a fine family man.
Former head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Texas Rangers, Col. Wilson Spiers went on to his final resting place.
My colleague Larry Conners has been married for over 20 years, has a family and is a television anchor in St. Louis.
The chicken ranch madam Edna Milton? Well, she got married, played in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on Broadway, and the last we heard, she moved to east Texas.
Sheriff T.J. Flournoy has since passed away. The sheriff was a good lawman, and never thought there was anything wrong in letting the Chicken Ranch operate.
The Chicken Ranch itself? Well, part of the house was moved to Dallas and became a fried chicken restaurant. That closed, too. So what's new?
And, Marvin Zindler? Well, somebody's got to be around to tell the story. Who else would believe it?
(Copyright © 2005, KTRK-TV)
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