Walter A.”Poky” Bourg was a slimy little character who ran dingy bar rooms, whorehouses, and dispensed dope along Fourth Street on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Short, scrawny, pasty-faced, Poky was a fast-talking character with oily black, stringy hair that reached his neck. Black, lifeless disks posed for eyes, and a mouth full of broken, jagged teeth–two of which were gold-capped–gave evidence of many lost street fights. Shiny green or brown suits over flowered polyester open-necked shirts, and white slip-on shoes with gold buckles shouted; “I am a pimp”.
Fourth Street ran parallel with the Mississippi River and connected the humble industrial communities of Gretna, Harvey, Marrero and Westwego. Some communities have a church on every corner. Fourth Street had a barroom or two in each block that provided recreation and pleasure for oil field hands and men who worked at the asbestos-producing Johns Mansville plant. As their host, Poky supplied his customers with watered-down drinks, young women…very young women, gambling and dope, for a price.
Usually, I was busy prosecuting felons, but all of us Assistant District Attorneys were assigned a docket of misdemeanors, which occasioned my meeting Poky Bourg. I got tired of trying b-drinking and prostitution cases that came out of his joints, so I employed an ancient Louisiana padlock law to shut down one of Poky’s most lucrative operations. This legal but vicious device had previously been used effectively by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison.
My vice cops told me this action really enraged Pokey, and he put the word on the street,“he was going to get me,” whatever the hell that meant. I guess, in Poky’s wee, underdeveloped adolescent brain, he was the Prince of Fourth Street and as such had authority to make these threats. At first I didn’t take the threat seriously.
Poky had become a pain in the fanny, so when my Vice Squad told me that Tracy Autin, one of “Poky’s girls” said she would testify against Poky, I charged him with pandering. Tracy was a sweet-looking little Cajun girl who had come from a farm outside Mamou in Cajun Country to the seedy world of the Fourth Street joints. She arrived for the same reason many young girls left their homes to come to the New Orleans area. She had been sexually abused by her own father from the age of six. For Tracy and the others with her background the transition to prostitution, where she would get paid for sex, seemed normal.
She was disposed to testify against Poky, her former pimp, because she fell out of favor with him. After getting beaten like a dog by him, Tracy had to return to her abusive family just to survive.
Judge J. Bernard Cocke once told me that, in the society of pimps and prostitutes, “responsible pimps” do play an important role. They protect the prostitute from abuse by her johns or anyone else. In addition, they provide her shelter, food, medical treatment, and help to manage her earnings. In a crude way, you could think of them as sort of a policeman, social worker, and financial advisor all in one. But even by the wise old judge’s definition, Poky was not a benevolent, protective pimp.
On occasion, those engaged in the oldest profession provide law enforcement with valuable information about more dangerous criminals, such as armed robbers and aggravated burglars. They perform this community service in exchange for their own immunity. Not smart enough to assist law enforcement in these traditional ways, Poky was therefore fair game.
To make sure Tracy could stand up to Poky in court, I went out to Mamou with one of my investigators and interviewed the former prostitute . She was a tough, smart little girl and we thought she could do the job. Although she was only seventeen and still very pretty, we had one slight physical problem to deal with. Sometime in her young life, she had the words LOVE and HATE tattooed, Elmer Gantry style, on the knuckles of her hands. Because she lacked any appropriate clothes to wear on the witness stand, we advanced her some money for go-to-court clothes. I figured that white gloves could cover the offending LOVE and HATE.
When she appeared in my office the morning of trial, I was stunned to see Tracy transformed into Little Bo Peep. She could have been in costume for one of her johns. My gosh, she was dressed in a frilly white dress decorated with pink ribbon. She even had a prissy, white-lace hat with little flowers. She looked like the Queen of May at the grammar school fair. When I had told her to get some clothes for trial, I was thinking of something a bit more conventional. Since “conventional” didn’t seem a part of Tracy’s vocabulary, after going over her testimony I handed her the white gloves and off to Judge Cocke’s court we went.
Poky had hired a good friend of mine (and a star basketball player from college days) to defend him. Ralph Barnett was an experienced trial lawyer who specialized exclusively in criminal defense. We had met in the courtroom many times and had numerous heated battles, but we respected one another and had remained friends. Ralph received multitudes of referrals from Adam Hebert, the local bail-bondsman. Thus, his busy docket allowed him minimal time for each client. Ralph gave Poky a little more attention, because Poky supplied a steady source of clients.
Most of the time, the overextended Ralph operated out of his briefcase and frequently asked me for pen and paper to take notes during the trial. During one trial, he leaned over and requested, “Lend me some of those law books on your table,” so he could look better prepared.
When Ralph saw my witness, he snickered sarcastically “You have brought The Virgin Mary herself to testify against my poor innocent Poky.”
He then asked; “But why the white gloves?”
I saw Ralph conferring with his client, and guessed that he already knew the answer to that question. Since Tracy was my key witness, Ralph would have to destroy her credibility. If the jury saw the Elmer Gantry message on her knuckles, both her innocence and credibility would be in serious doubt.
We selected a bobtail jury of five citizens and trial began. With such a small number of jurors the law required that four of them would have to agree on a verdict. I went through a couple of preliminary witnesses, then brought on Tracy–looking like Mary Poppins–as my “star witness.” She seemed to enjoy the role she had to play and once on the witness stand “put the hat on Poky.” Her testimony revealed all the details of Poky’s nefarious business.
The first question Ralph asked her on cross examination was, “Why are you wearing gloves?”
I immediately objected as to relevancy. Judge Cocke sustained my objection emphatically and without hesitation. Ralph tried a side door. “Is there something wrong with your hands?”
Cocke became even more red in the face and admonished Ralph; “Move on to another subject. I don’t want to warn you again”.
Ralph and I both knew he was in dangerous contempt territory with the old judge, but he wanted to destroy Tracy’s credibility any way he could. So the former basketball star tried a frontal assault. “Do you have …?”
Before he could finish the sentence and I could object, Cocke blew a fuse, leaned across the bench, glared at Ralph with face aflame and blood vessels near bursting, and proclaimed emphatically, “You are now in contempt Mr. Barnett. I will deal with you at the conclusion of this trial.”
Ralph concluded his cross examination, but didn’t–pardon the pun–lay a glove on Tracy. I rested my case, Ralph rested, and we completed final arguments.
Thirty minutes later the five good citizens returned a verdict of “Guilty as charged.”
Cocke cancelled Poky’s bond and ordered him taken in custody to await sentencing. The bailiff put the “bracelets” on Poky and escorted him from the courtroom. As he passed me in the courtroom on his way to jail, he looked straight at me and snarled, “I’m going to get you, smart guy.” I appreciated the smart guy part.
I suppose Tracy returned to Mamou or maybe she just found better working conditions in New Orleans. I never heard from her again.
It was just about dusk when I left the courthouse in my old Chevy pickup. The windows were down because the old Chevy lacked AC, but it was cool and I enjoyed the breeze across my face. My route home took me down Fourth Street, past some of Poky’s joints, then on to the River Road, which follows the contours of the levee that contains the Mississippi River. On the other side of the road from the levee are industrial plants that abut one another for miles.
Passing by the joints on Fourth Street reminded me of Poky’s final threat. Poky’s threats lingered in my mind as I turned on to River Road. “Ah, Poky is just a loud-mouth punk, and besides he is in jail now,” I said to myself. “But what if he got word to some of his nitwitted, lowlife friends?”
“Surely, none of them would have the sense or guts to do anything. “Or would they?” I mused. About that time a truck coming from the other direction came abreast of me. At this inopportune moment it emitted a loud backfire that sounded for all the world like the deep-throated report of a 12 gauge shotgun. My heart stopped for a long while, then started beating like a trip hammer. I examined myself, but found no holes or blood. Poky’s threats remained just talk.
My heart rate had returned to normal by the time I reached the Bridge Circle Inn. A few boilermakers of Old Crow whiskey with draft beer steadied me enough to get across the shaky Huey Long Bridge. After a good night’s sleep, I returned to the courtroom the next day.
After all, there were people charged with real crimes–murder, rape, and armed robbery–that needed to be tried.