At 9:15 a.m. on Jan. 4, Vanessa Leggett, an aspiring Houston crime novelist, walked onto the street in front of the Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston for a tearful reunion with her husband, Doak.
Leggett had occupied an 8-by-10-foot cell there since July 20, a total of 168 days. Among her fellow prisoners were accused drug traffickers and others awaiting trial on a variety of federal charges.
Her transgression: Refusing to provide information to the federal grand jury about a murder-for-hire investigation. Leggett had interviewed dozens of witnesses for a book about the April 16, 1997, murder of Doris Angleton, who was shot 13 times in her Houston home. The woman’s millionaire husband, Robert Angleton, was tried and acquitted of state murder charges of hiring his brother, Roger, to murder her.
Roger, one of the people Leggett had interviewed, killed himself in a Houston jail cell before that trial. He reportedly left a note absolving his brother, but federal authorities are investigating the case for possible interstate conspiracy charges, as Roger Angleton had lived in California. They have argued that Leggett is not a bona fide journalist and thus not entitled to a qualified privilege to protect sources. They also point out that there is no federal shield law.
Her attorney, Mike DeGuerin, appealed her detention to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A panel rejected her appeal in August. He has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
SPJ is paying half of DeGuerin’s $25,000 fee.
U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, who had ordered Leggett jailed, ordered her released when the term of the grand jury expired. Federal prosecutors have not indicated whether they may summon a new grand jury, issue a new subpoena, and thus set the stage for Leggett’s reincarceration. Leggett already has shattered all previous records for journalists jailed for contempt.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, appeared at a news conference with Leggett two hours after her release and vowed to sponsor a federal shield law that would grant the privilege to protect confidential sources to anyone, provided that the person intends to make the information available to the public.
Leggett, 33, clad in her khaki prison uniform, sat down for a jailhouse interview with Quill on Dec. 18. She answered other questions by phone the day after her release.
Raised in Houston, Leggett holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in liberal arts from St. Thomas University in Houston. She also did graduate study in liberal arts at Edge Hill College in Lancashire, England.
She has worked as a paralegal, a private investigator and an adjunct professor of criminology at the University of Houston. Her only published works are, ironically, two FBI manuals. She also has edited two crime novels for a small Houston publishing company.
She was working on a book on the case of Robert Colson, who murdered five members of his family in Houston in 1992, when she became intrigued by the Angleton case. She still plans to publish that book.
She and her husband, 37, who works for a wireless communication company, observed their eighth wedding anniversary four days after her release. They have no children.
QUESTIONS FROM THE DEC. 18 INTERVIEW:
Quill: How did you become interested in the Angleton murder case?
Leggett: I was asked to comment on a radio program about the case. I had taught criminology at the University of Houston downtown. I was in adjunct status. The producer had called me and asked me to comment on this Angleton case, and I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I wanted to maintain good relations with the radio station for when I completed my other book that I was working on. So I agreed to go on the show even though I didn’t think I’d have anything to contribute. I ordered Doris’ autopsy report, which hadn’t even been released yet, and I asked a friend of mine who was [an] attorney if he knew anything about the Angleton story, and he said that he had known both brothers. At the time, no one had been arrested. Robert Angleton was a prime suspect, the husband. There had been nothing in the news reports about the brother, about Roger. So I became immediately intrigued about this brother, and as it happened, the attorney agreed to go on this show with me. But the night before we were to go on the show I was talking to him, and he got a call from Roger Angleton, who he hadn’t heard from for seven years, and Roger said homicide detectives are here questioning me. The attorney hung up the phone and said I can’t go on the show with you, I have a conflict of interest, now I’m going to represent Roger, who is going to be arrested it looks like in that murder that we’re going to talk about. So I went on the radio show alone and announced that arrests were imminent. But I didn’t think it was going to go any further than that until I ran into a writer for Texas Monthly, Skip Hollingsworth, at a hearing on the case and he asked if I would co-author an article on it; I said absolutely. That was like a Rolls Royce of writing assignments. I was very eager. My part of that was because I said I could get an interview with Roger and I thought I could, but unfortunately I couldn’t get it all done because Roger wouldn’t grant it (before the deadline). By the time I got to see him, Skip’s article had already come out. But I went to interview him (in Las Vegas) with Texas Monthly credentials. He was picked up on unrelated charges.
Quill: So, ironically, Robert Angleton was acquitted and he is a free man?
Leggett: Uh-huh. I was not actually allowed to attend the trial because I was supposed to be a witness. At any event, the centerpiece of their (the prosecution’s) case was the tape that was found in Roger’s possession in Las Vegas, of two men plotting Doris’ murder. The problem was they sent it off for voice analysis before the trial, and their own expert said he could not conclude absolutely that it was Robert Angleton’s voice. Roger did tell me about the meeting in which he taped his brother and when it was made and how it was made, but they didn’t call me.
Quill: Didn’t he leave a note exonerating his brother?
Leggett: What he told me was completely contrary to his dying declaration.
Quill: Now, you haven’t claimed your conversation with him was confidential because he’s dead?
Leggett: No. I wanted to, I tried to, but a media lawyer I consulted informed me that any viable claim of confidentiality or privilege that I claimed expired with that subject. They have my tape, but not with my permission. Here’s what happened: I was subpoenaed before the grand jury in the state case. I didn’t show. They issued an arrest warrant for me with a $10,000 bond. That scared me! The media lawyer said you really don’t have any ground to stand on; your subject is dead. I went to Mr. DeGuerin for advice, and he negotiated a deal in which they would be able to listen to the tapes, but at the termination of the state case they would be returned to me. They returned all but one copy, which they passed on to the FBI without my permission.
Quill: How long after your last interview with Roger did he commit suicide?
Leggett: I was with him the night before.
Quill: Do you think there’s any connection between the interview and the suicide?
Leggett: I don’t know. I’ve explored that in my book. I’ve been put to the wall on it; did he commit suicide? I’m still very ambivalent about it. If I had to say yes or no absolutely, I would say that he committed suicide, but there are highly questionable circumstances surrounding his death.
Quill: So you’re not convinced he committed suicide?
Leggett: I’m not convinced, no. I interviewed him on Friday night and he was found dead Saturday morning. When I came to interview him on Friday, he said, “Guess who was here earlier?” I said, “Who?” He said, “One of the state prosecutors.” He gave me the name and I said, “What was he here for?” He said, “He wanted to offer me a deal to testify against Bob.” I said, “What did you tell him?” He said, “I didn’t tell him anything. My attorney wasn’t there, so I told him to come back Monday and we’d talk then.” Of course, 24 hours later Roger was dead.
Quill: What was your reaction?
Leggett: Utter shock! And sadness, too. I’d gotten to know this man. Despite his heinous acts, I’d gotten close to him. The strangest thing about it is that despite the fact that he left a long letter to me in his jail cell, and the jail people knew that I’d been coming up there every day to see him, no one ever called me in regard to the investigation of his death, and I was the last person from the outside to see him.
Quill: Was there one key piece of information the grand jury wanted or were there several?
Leggett: That question presupposes that perhaps there’s a key piece of information. They have not specified what they’re looking for. If they say they’re going after some
smoking gun, I find that quite ridiculous. I have no smoking gun to give them. I had a “heard” gun and they took it from me. I mean, they have Roger Angleton’s own words. I can’t imagine what more they could possibly want. If you perform the little three-part test – relevance, materiality, not obtainable from other sources, etc. – there’s nothing that I have that they cannot go out and get themselves. They can do the same work that I’ve done, and you know what, with their resources, I’ll bet they could do it better, much better. I don’t know why they don’t. Part of the information they’re asking for is any tapes I might have with their own agents! All of the FBI agents who are investigating the case are sort of shoehorned into the subpoena. Why can’t the prosecutors ask their own agents what they told me and trust them to tell the truth about what they told me? Why do they need me to tell them what their own agents said? There’s been a lot of talk about this First Amendment stuff and freedom of the press, and I think what’s been lost is the libertarian view of the Fourth Estate being a watchdog on government. The press should be free from government intrusion. If the press is not able to scrutinize, vigorously, the government, that guts a basic constitutional function.
Quill: Can you tell me how many anonymous sources you’re protecting?
Leggett: Many. Many. There’s quite a few. Some of them, it’s not anonymity. There are some people who say, don’t use my name, or change my name. But for some people it was, I’m willing to tell you this but I want you to go get it from somebody else and not me, I just want you to know it’s there, and they’d tell me who to go to.
Quill: Mr. DeGuerin now is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. That could take many more months. You’re still prepared to wait it out?
Leggett: Yes. I don’t think I will. I do know this: I did not set foot in this place before I had mentally steeled myself for (a stay of) 18 months, because it would have been pointless to come here for 24 hours and then do what they want.
Quill: If the highest court in the land refuses to hear the appeal from the 5th Circuit, or they do hear it and say, Vanessa Leggett, you do not have the right to protect your sources, tell the grand jury what you know, then what? Do you still fight?
Leggett: I would hope the Supreme Court would have the wisdom to not make (my case) sweeping for all journalists. I think if they look at precedents they will see, as (Justice Lewis) Powell advocated in Branzburg (vs. Hayes, 1972), that these cases need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. As long as they uphold their own prior decision, that there should be a balancing between the divergent interests of the public to, you know, freedom of the press, and effective law enforcement, if they follow their own balancing test, I don’t think it will be a problem. I don’t think I answered your question. I don’t know what will happen. I do know that I will hold on to my information. My position will not change.
Quill: If you had small children, would you make the same decision?
Leggett: Oh, excellent question, because it’s something I’ve rolled over in my mind time and again. (Pause) I don’t think so, to be perfectly candid.
Quill: Do you think of yourself as a martyr at this point?
Leggett: No, I never have. I’m just doing what I hope anyone else similarly situated would do. I mean, you tell your sources you’re going to protect them, and if you say it, you should mean it. And I’m angry, too. I’m angry at the government for doing this to me. They could do their own work, and I think it’s very unfair for them to hang this on me.
Quill: There are some who suggest you’re doing this for publicity to enhance sales of your book. How do you respond to that?
Leggett: Absolutely not, and let me tell you why. This is not the right way to get publicity. You can get publicity these days just by running down the street naked practically. You can get publicity on all kinds of shows. That’s not what I’m seeking. I had planned on getting publicity for my book, but I had already done it before I was subpoenaed. Before I was ever subpoenaed, “48 Hours” started filming a show. They filmed me for the show. It will air next month, on Jan. 11. They filmed me months before I was ever subpoenaed. My plan was to finish my manuscript this past summer and have at least a rough draft completed, so that if there was interest from the show I could sell my manuscript. I didn’t think I was going to have any problem selling this book. There’s a little down side to my situation, because I take my writing very seriously, and now I’ll never know if my book sold on its own merits or because I became some media spectacle. That really infuriates me.
Quill: This book is still in the manuscript stage?
Leggett: Yeah! That’s what’s so frustrating.
Quill: The whereabouts of that manuscript are a closely guarded secret?
Leggett: Yes! Yes!
Quill: Once you get out of here are you going to be oriented more toward fiction or non-fiction?
Leggett: I love crime fiction, and I love historical novels that are fictionalized. At the same time, I’m pretty adamant that if you’re interested in a story, and you want the truth to come out, then you should be able to pursue whatever you want to pursue without fear of government intrusion.
Quill: Has your husband been supportive of what you’re doing or has he at any time urged you to reconsider and come home?
Leggett: Well, I’ll be fair about this. The answer is no, he’s been supportive, but before I came to jail he was very much against it. He said, “Vanessa, you’ve really gone too far this time. You’ve put this story first, and you’ve really gone overboard; my wife does not go to jail.” But he didn’t really know what all was going on until Roger turned up dead. He’s come to a full understanding and appreciation of all of this, and I’m very grateful for that.
Quill: You’re required to mix with the general prison population?
Leggett: Uh-huh, and I’ve actually welcomed the experience, because as a writer, I like to get to know all different types of people.
Quill: Will you ever wear khaki again?
Leggett: Never! And it was one of my favorite colors, too.
FROM THE JANUARY 5 INTERVIEW:
Quill: How did you spend your first hours of freedom?
Leggett: We had a barrage of interviews, then I went home, and I went to lunch with my mom and my husband.
Quill: What did you order for your first meal as a free woman?
Leggett: A grilled chicken salad.
Quill: If you have to go back to jail, will it be easier for you because you know what to expect, or harder after having a taste of freedom?
Leggett: I think it will be easier. I know what to expect. I think part of the government’s tack was to weaken me, but I feel stronger from this experience. I feel confident that if I were faced with that situation again, I’d emerge just as strong.
Quill: Have you been working on your book since your release?
Leggett: No. I’m afraid of their coming into my home.
Quill: So you can’t resume work on it unless you go to a secret location?
Leggett: Well, that’s not quite true. For this part of the book (her incarceration), the only resource I need is my memory, not my notes. Not only that, but I need to purge this part of the story from my mind, even if it’s out of sequence. And I’m still trying to keep up with Mr. Angleton and his status.
Quill: Do you have a publisher yet?
Leggett: We’ve had several offers, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss it at this point.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication and SPJ faculty adviser at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.