Mark Crawford Trial: 1999

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Mark Crawford Trial: 1999

Defendant: Mark Crawford
Crimes Charged: Murder in aid of racketeering, racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, kidnapping, conspiracy to embezzle, embezzlement, wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, perjury, obstruction of justice by killing a witness, obstruction of justice by retaliating against a witness, conspiracy to threaten to commit a crime of violence against an individual
Chief Defense Lawyer: William May
Chief Prosecutor. Mark E. Cullers
Judge: Oliver W. Wanger
Place: Fresno, California
Date of Trial: June 22-August 20, 1999
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life in prison

SIGNIFICANCE: Crawford was acquitted of murder in a state court but convicted of murder of a federal witness in federal court. The same person was murdered, but the two crimes were different, the court held, and therefore Crawford was not subjected to double jeopardy.

Mark Crawford looked like a poster boy for hard work and rectitude. Born dirt-poor in Maryland, he joined the army at 17. After two hitches, he and his wife moved to Ingleside, Texas, where he became a welder. He made a lot of friends in Ingleside, a small Gulf Coast town across the bay from Corpus Christi, taught Sunday school, and for the first time in his life was making a good income. In 1988, to the consternation of his wife, he quit his job and ran for mayor. Surprisingly, he won at the age of 33mostly, according to the former mayor, because of his righteous image.

Crawford also started a construction business, but that venture was less fortunate. It failed. Undiscouraged, he started a new business, an employee leasing firm called Superior Staffing. The new business prospered.

Crawford began buying fancy cars, a boat and a beach house. People began to talk. For the first time, it seems, a substantial number of people in the area began to have their doubts about Crawford. After his second term as mayor, Crawford ran for the state senate but was defeated. The defeat didn't slow him down. He dropped out of politics and bought another business, Viking Casualty Co., that he operated in partnership with a Houston entrepreneur named Nick Brueggan. Tongues really began wagging when the IRS closed down Superior Staffing and seized Crawford's assets. The IRS said the former mayor had been cheating the federal government out of tax money. But Crawford just acquired new assets. There seemed to be no end to his money.

Evidence of a Body

Then on June 1, 1996, a weight lifter named Kirk Johnson, employed as a bodyguard by Crawford, came to the Aransas County sheriff with a wild story. He said he and another Crawford bodyguard, Michael Beckcom, had helped Crawford murder Nick Brueggan. He led officers to a grave containing Brueggan's body. According to Johnson, they had forced Brueggan into a metal tool box, then attached a hose to a hole in the box and filled it from exhaust from a minivan. When Ingleside police and Texas Rangers went looking for Crawford, he had disappeared. Six weeks later, they found him in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The reason for the murder, Johnson said, was that federal agents were investigating Viking Casualty and a financial network Crawford had built up. It involved insurance companies that never paid claims, corporations that pocketed employees' income taxes, large-scale embezzlement, and marijuana selling. The organization's members referred to it as "the family" and wore gold rings engraved with the Chinese symbol for "family." Crawford's "family" operated illegal enterprises in Texas, Mississippi, Colorado, and California.

The second bodyguard, Mike Beckcom, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Crawford in return for a lighter sentence. Texas charged the former mayor with murder. The state prosecutors had two problems, however.

Suppressed Evidence and Conflicting Testimony

The state's biggest problem was that it couldn't present a motive for Brueggan's murder. At this point, there were no indictments against Viking Casualty or any of its subsidiaries or against Crawford, Brueggan, or anyone else in connection with the alleged activities of the "family." Because of that, no evidence concerning the federal investigation could be introduced. The second problem was that while Johnson and Beckcom both testified against Crawford, they told different stories. In both his cross-examinations and summation, Crawford's lawyer, Bill May, pointed up the inconsistencies.

The jury was deadlocked 10-2 in favor of a guilty verdict. In spite of the weakness of the state's case, there was a lot of suspicion of Crawford in Aransas County. But there wasn't enough for a unanimous verdict.

The state moved for a new trial. But this time in was held in San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County. The people there had no feeling about Crawford one way or the other. The testimony of Johnson and Beckcom did not impress them.

"One of them said one thing, then the other said something else," May commented later. "The jury couldn't believe either one."

The jury found him not guilty.

Enter the Feds

Crawford was not released, however. By this time, federal prosecutors had secured indictments. They charged not only murder but a whole string of felonies. On January 26, 1999, May moved to have the case dismissed. The court rejected his motion to dismiss because of double jeopardy, because the federal murder charge concerned a different crime than the state charge although the same person was murdered. It also rejected motions to dismiss on several other grounds, such as overly vague charges.

The federal trial was held in Fresno, California, because Crawford was alleged to have defrauded Ararat International, a Fresno-based firm. Six months earlier, the CEO of Ararat had pleaded guilty to embezzlement himself.

At the trial the government piled up evidence showing that millions of illegal dollars had flowed into Crawford's enterprises. This time, Kirk Johnson was charged with a variety of felonies, including murder and kidnapping in aid of racketeering, and did not testify about the murder. (In return for his testimony in the state trials, Johnson had been given 10 years probation after pleading guilty to murder.) This time there was no chance of the jury getting conflicting stories.

After deliberating a week, the jury found Crawford guilty on all counts. Judge Oliver Wanger sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole.

William Weir

Suggestions for Further Reading

Corpus Christi Caller Times. (Oct 15, 21, 1998; January 26, June 14, 22, 23, 25, 1999; Aug. 5, 6, 7, 11, 21, 1999; Dec. 9, 1999; June 13, 2000).

Dallas Morning News (June 21, 2000).

City Confidential: Ingleside, TX. Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Videocassette.