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Texas Trails

published: April 29th 2022
by: Clay Coppedge

Austin Gangsters
    On Aug. 1, 1966, a bad poker player named Charles Whitman made his way to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus and opened fire with a high-powered rifle aimed at anybody and everybody who was unlucky enough to be on Guadalupe Street that day. Before he was taken down by Austin police, Whitman had killed 17 people and wounded 31 in one of the worst mass murders in the country’s history.
    It never would have happened if an Austin thug named Tim Overton had followed his inclination to kill Whitman in lieu of collecting a gambling debt a few years previous.
    Whitman was such a dedicated but inept poker player that he became a designated sucker for Overton and his gang of jack-of-all-trades criminals in 1961, when Whitman was a freshman at UT.  He hosted a series of poker games at the Goodall-Wooten dorm, where he was the hall monitor charged with, among other things, making sure no one did any gambling on the premises. 
    From those games, Whitman’s reputation as a hapless poker player spread into the Austin underworld where it caught the attention of Overton and his gang of dedicated criminals, who started showing up at the dorm and winning big enough to put Whitman about $200 in debt to them. He wrote a check to cover the debt but stopped payment the next day.
    When Overton showed up to collect the debt he was met at the door by a .357 magnum-wielding Whitman. The confrontation never extended past that standoff, and the rest is a blood-stained chapter of Texas and American history.
    Tim Overton, who it turns out was simply too busy committing felonies and dealing with robbery charges in Dallas to follow through on his threats against Whitman, ran one of the most prolific and, for a time, successful criminal enterprises in Austin’s history.
    Overton was a former jock, a football standout at Austin High School who played guard and linebacker for coach Darrell Royal’s first teams in the late 1950s. But, as Texas songwriter Terry Allen sang about another ex-jock with a great future behind him, Overton “traded in the pigskin for the penitentiary.” 
    Before that happened, Overton and his best buddy, Jerry Ray James, put together their own team of thugs, hustlers, safecrackers, counterfeiters and some lawyers who didn’t mind defending people who did terrible things and some who weren’t even opposed to doing those things themselves. They turned Austin inside-out, then hit the road.
    At the peak of their success in the mid-60s, the gang hit at least a dozen but probably closer to two dozen banks in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas without neglecting their jewelry heists, home burglaries, pimping, drug dealing and just about any other felony you can think of.
    Austin writer and musician Jesse Sublett did a deep dive into the Overton gang in his 2015 book 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organi-zed Crime That Rocked the Capital.
    “Let’s be clear: these guys were not admirable citizens,” Sublett writes in the book’s introduction. “Tim Overton and his friends were violent, predatory and brutal. Their tracks are sometimes easy to follow because they left a trail of abused victims and destroyed property. The last thing I’d want to do is romanticize them, but they were interesting people living during an interesting time.”
    Overton, James, and 18 others were defendants in a federal conspiracy trial in 1968, but most were acquitted as the case largely collapsed under so many burdens of proof for so many crimes against so many people. But Overton, who already owed time for a bank robbery in Mobeetie, was convicted and sent to prison. He got out in October of 1972 and was dead two months later, shot in the back of the head by – surprise, surprise – another hoodlum.
    The sheer number of crimes committed by these guys is mind-boggling, like trying to recount every significant moment in Michael Jordan’s career or naming every book that Stephen King ever wrote, but Sublett delivers the goods on what he calls “Austin’s locally grown white trash mafia”  in astonishing detail, as with the almost-fateful meeting of Overton and Charles Whitman. The real surprise here is that the story hasn’t been told before.

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