By Don McAlavy
Sometime after 3 a.m. on March 30, 1949, Ovida “Cricket” Coogler was killed in Las Cruces.
She was 18, stood 5 feet, 4 inches and weighed about 100 pounds. She worked as a waitress. She was called “Cricket” because of the clicking noise made by her spike-heeled shoes as she walked. She was popular.
She left her mother’s house saying she had a dinner date, but was last seen extremely drunk and could not even sit on a barstool.
Around 3 a.m., a witness saw her opening the door of Jerry “Brusier” Nuzum’s car, in front of the Del Rio Bar, and leaping out. There seemed to be a quarrel between her and Nuzum, who was from Clovis. He was targeted as the only viable suspect since he had been seen fighting with Cricket prior to her death.
Three teenage boys found Cricket’s body out in the desert 17 days later. State Police Capt. Jimmy Clark, stationed in Clovis, was asked to question Nuzum. At first, Nuzum said he didn’t know her, but later recanted. Clark said Nuzum was very nervous.
Cricket’s partly decomposed body was found in a shallow grave. She was buried in a cemetery with no autopsy performed and no cause of death determined.
A public outcry demanded justice in the slain girl’s death. More than a month after her death, a judge ordered the body exhumed and a doctor determined the cause of death to be from a fractured skull. Her injuries, he said, were consistent with having been run over by a car.
Cricket’s death was soon rumored to be tied to gambling that was rampant in Dona Ana County. Vice and corruption marked political activity in that county and over most of the rest of the state, it was said.
Charges of inefficiency of law enforcement and political chicanery of every known type were made.
Nuzum was a 1941 graduate of Clovis High School. He became a professional football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was a former football player for New Mexico A&M college at Las Cruces. He faced murder charges in a trial that began on June 29, 1951, but his guilt was very much in question.
Mary Foy, wife of an employee at the White Sands Missile Range, testified she saw two state policemen throw Cricket Coogler into a state police car and drive off with her after they slugged her unconscious in the early morning hours of March 30. Foy had been warned to keep her mouth shut when she tried to tell Sheriff Happy Apodaca about what she saw. This was prior to Foy’s coming forward to testify.
Following several more witnesses appearing in court, Nuzum was found not guilty.
Happy Apodaca, Hubert Beasley (former state police chief), and Roy Sandman (former undersheriff for Apodaca) were sentenced to terms of one year each in prison in connection with the torture of Wesley E. Byrd, a suspect, who was questioned about Cricket’s slaying. Federal Judge Carl A. Hatch, who began his law practice in Clovis in 1917, heard the case of the three lawmen.
Since nobody was charged with Cricket’s death, a grand jury made its investigation and that jury was unable to bring the guilty to justice. But the grand jury did succeed in starting a cleanup of the local government in Dona Ana County.
Speculation as to Cricket’s death rose from stories that she was beaten to keep from blowing the whistle on well-known political figures who controlled the lawmen, and not only in Dona Ana County. It was speculated that big-time Mafia boss Bugsy Segal had planned to open up gambling and prostitution houses in southern Dona Ana County, but the public and political pressure on the death of Cricket and the dishonest politicians convinced him to continue on to Las Vegas, Nev.
Thus the death of Cricket will remain one of the many mysteries of New Mexico.
(I got most of my information for this story from the 2002-2003 edition of the New Mexico State Police publication “Roadrunner.”)
Don McAlavy is a history buff who lives in Clovis.