Chapter 5: The Final Footfalls of Joseph Derr

So there we were, Jorge Camps and I, greeting gray daybreak with a couple of bottles of Negra Modelo after completing a strange and most unholy carnal via crucis along Acapulco’s notorious Condesa Beach. We’d chatted up transvestites, prostitutes, pederasts, boys on leashes, bondage buddies, sadists and masochists (like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other).

A house ad previewing my stories from Acapulco

Whatever kinks compelled them into complicated embraces on the beach or in cheap motels near club row, or even sometimes right out on the dance floor, these denizens of Acapulco’s sexual netherworld were hardly the darkest souls I encountered. Those souls inhabited the shadows of Donald Baggett and Joseph Derr, forever vanishing around a corner a split second after I caught sight of them.

When Joe Derr first came to my attention one year earlier and I’d pieced together the basics of his story on deadline, I’d written: “To follow Joseph Derr’s journey through this life is to follow two sets of footprints where only one man has passed.” Joe had passed though a good portion of the cultural and psychic landscape of the 20th Century: A rural upbringing tinged with the gothic undertow of forbidden love; exile; reinvention as a plastics magnate in the booming post-World War II economy; evening jackets and cocktails and high society – such as it was in the heartland – with fellow swells and politically connected business associates; furtive adventures amid rougher trade plied by gangsters; a sham marriage and a secret life indulging his true desires.

Joseph Derr’s junior yearbook entry, 1923

Now, in this final season in Acapulco, Joseph Derr was 73 years old, a wealthy man, an emeritus industrialist and, as sexual mores had changed, an increasingly uncloseted homosexual less and less inclined to hide his relationship with Donald Baggett, a former street kid, bodybuilder and, to all appearances, a companion for long-term hire.

And where had Joe’s footprints led me? To the edge of the Pacific surf. To death in another country. Everyone who walks this earth is on a one-way trip. In most cases, only fate can decide when and where it will end. But Donald Baggett couldn’t afford to wait for fate to take Joe’s hand.

In the days leading up to Monday, January 21, the day Joe disappeared, Playa Hermosa guests who walked past Bungalow 9 heard angry voices tinged with suspicion and freighted with recriminations and threats. William Smither of Crystal City, Texas, walked into the aftermath of a screaming match when he visited for his daily backgammon game with Joe. “Don was all swelled up like a toad and not at all in a nice frame of mind,” he said.  Smither took his dice and his pips and slunk away.

Helen Gualiano in Bungalow 8 heard the finale of the same argument. She also heard Joe tell Don “he wasn’t going to leave him a damn thing.” Everyone seemed to know that Don’s time with Joe was winding down — and good riddance to bad rubbish as far as Joe’s genteel cronies were concerned. Don was ever the fly in the ointment, the crocodile at the edge of the lagoon, the one-eyed jack in a queens’ paradise. He was also, in the words of ex-Federale Jorge Camps, a predator and a “gigolo … a violent aggressive type.”

The Coy Contessa

It wasn’t uncommon for Don to sleep with other men or women — and, in Acapulco, it was not unusual for Joe to patronize young male prostitutes along Condesa Beach. Fair is fair, we all need our space. But in this winter of discontent Don was contemplating – or at least threatening – to leave Joe to marry Contessa Floriana Riccardi, a purported Italian noblewoman of dubious peerage who, when she was not in Acapulco, reigned over a seedy precinct of North Las Vegas. Her regal bona fides appeared on no Italian registries I consulted later. I suspected she’d become a contessa the same way plain old Oscar Renta had become suave new Oscar de la Renta; she just made it up.

Whether Don was simply changing cash cows in midstream or trying to manipulate Joe into reviving old affections was a matter of considerable debate at the Playa Hermosa. But no one mistook him for a pining romantic. Least of all self-described Hollywood producer Mary Dean Pulver. (As no one I called in L.A. in 1988 ever heard of her and she does not in this modern age appear anywhere in the Internet Movie Database, I’ve generously concluded that at one time or another Mary Dean might have gone to the movies.)

“I’ve seen men like that all over the world,” Mary Dean declared. “Don made a big play for me and I said, ‘Wait a minute, who do you think you’re fooling?’ He didn’t do it nicely and he didn’t do it to be polite. He just wanted to do it.”

Tawdry episodes like this, along with Don’s panting pursuit of the Contessa, got back to Joe, whose temper was already inflamed. “Joe was getting very, very upset with Don, and was getting ready to leave him,” said Mary Dean. “I could feel the tension.”

The Contessa was long on vowels and short on cash but she possessed perfect vision. Don’s proposal sounded like exactly what it was: a trade-in, not a trade-up. Playa regular Jess Pinkston was on drinking terms with the whole sordid lot. “The Contessa told me later that Baggett wanted to marry her and she told him, ‘I’ve got enough money to live on myself, but I don’t have enough for the two of us.’”

And so, on Monday, Jan. 21, 1980, Joseph Derr walked out of Bungalow 9 and into oblivion. He was missed at the bar that evening but friends grew positively alarmed when he did not alight for breakfast in the morning. Fortunately Don was there to soothe their worries. There was no need to worry, Joe had gone fishing in Zihuatanejo, three hours up the coast, Don explained.

Hmmm, thought Playa proprietor Lalo Mackissack, who saw and heard all from his perch on the portico outside his office. This was a vexatious scenario. For one thing, Joe had never gone fishing before and owned no fishing gear. For another, when Don and the Contessa left later that day to look for Joe, Lalo watched them depart in her royal blue Volkswagen. They returned in Joe’s lime green Chevy. What sort of automotive alchemy is this? Lalo wondered. Baggett also returned with reassurances that did nothing to reassure. He said he’d found Joe’s car at Condesa Beach and reached him by phone in Zihuatanejo and would soon go there to fetch him. Again, Lalo pondered: How had Derr traveled 235 klicks to Zihuatanejo without a car?

The answer, of course, was that he hadn’t. And neither had Donald Baggett.

Jorge and Laura Camps and I repaired for a last meal before my visit ended. “To fly over Mexico, it’s easy to think that no one lives in those forests and mountains between the cities, but they are filled with people,” Jorge explained. “Out there, a car with Americans passing through is a big thing. People would remember. I checked every little village along the route – there was no sign of them. Baggett didn’t go to Zihuatanejo. He went to Mexico City.”

Lalo Mackissack and company were waiting for Joe and Don to walk through the door and tell of their adventures over drinks. But by Thursday, January 25, it became clear they weren’t coming. That’s when Lalo called the police. A few days later, Derr’s Chevrolet was located at the Mexico City Airport. Baggett had parked it in the long-term lot, turned in his tourist card and disappeared. For two weeks, he was in the wind. The Contessa’s Volkswagen was never found.

And where, eventually, should our erstwhile albino turn up but in a barber’s chair in Evansville, two weeks later. By the time Evansville Detective Clay Stinson arrived at the shop all that remained of Donald Baggett were his clipped white tresses. It would be weeks before he resurfaced. During that time, he bounced from town to town, relying on the kindness of friends and relatives. He told two cousins that he was in “deep shit in Mexico,” Stinson told me. He told Sherry Sparks he had “killed Joe by the ocean in Acapulco” — she would refuse to repeat the tale for the record later. Stinson added that good leads indicated Baggett flew back to Mexico City where he was greeted at the airport by the Contessa, who “told him to get the hell out of Mexico.” Up, up and away he went, never to return.

A Town Without Pity

If a cynical greed-fueled murder in the manner of a James M. Cain novel had to take place, there was no better place than Acapulco. Since my sex club forays with Jorge were nocturnal I spent my days loafing on the beach and exploring the city. Wealthy Americans and Europeans hug the shore, their days are large and lush, but a few blocks inland it’s a scrap for survival. The city had grown to almost one million souls and the homeless and hard-put would do anything for a buck.

Acapulco, circa 1980

I’d seen how cheap life was here. The money was worthless. Long ago the peso had been on par with the dollar but by 1988 the margin had stretched to 3,000-1. I was peeling off bills like a Dallas Cowboy at a strip club. Three-thousand pesos for a cup of coffee. Five-thousand for a gin and tonic. Everything was negotiable and nothing was not for sale. During a 20-minute walk on the fringe of the tourist district, I was offered weed, blow and women at least a dozen times. Flesh wasn’t just on offer, it was discounted: 30,000 pesos for one under-aged girl, 40,000 for two.

The general loucheness of the place, combined with an underlying contempt for privileged Americans in general — and homosexuals in particular — suggested alternative scenarios for the demise of Joseph Derr. While the world of 1980 was far more liberal than the world of 1920, when Joe first was exiled, it wasn’t yet that liberal – and besides, Mexican culture was and is rooted in machismo; to call a man a joto, or a queer, is a grave insult.

Lalo Mackissack, Jorge Camps and others gave varying degrees of credence to the idea that Joe’s pederastic needs led to his death. Lalo discouraged Joe from visiting the young prostitutes at Condesa beach, persuading him to at least leave expensive jewelry in the hotel safe when he did. Jorge was philosophical. “These queers, they get themselves into all kinds of trouble down here.” His official report was somewhat more tactful: Derr, it said, “was accustomed to going to the restaurant ‘Betos,’ a place frequented by homosexuals as well as those who exploited those people, young men in the greatest part who profited from the older ones like Derr.” Sometimes excessive ardor or misunderstandings about the dollar-to-peso exchange rate or the going price for certain sex acts led to bruised feelings or broken teeth. That’s what the paddy wagon was for and there was nothing unusual about any of it, Laura Camps explained. “Derr was just another one of the old queens down here,” she said, blithely waving away the thought.

An Elusive Quarry

The idea that Joe had been murdered in a fit of passion by a buff young prostitute seemed thoroughly unlikely. As did another theory, much in vogue at the Playa: that Baggett hired such a person or persons to kill Joe. “Maybe Baggett arranged to have him kidnapped,” Mary Dean Pulver opined. “You can arrange something like that very, very easily in Acapulco. I cannot see any reason for an outright murder – although it wouldn’t be hard to find someone to murder him in Acapulco.” I wondered: Did Mary Dean have first-hand knowledge or had she recently visited the bijou?

These scenarios, cinematic though they were, did not fit the facts. While few murders were solved in Acapulco, it was unheard of for the bodies of wealthy visitors to simply vanish. Hot-tempered street kids did not operate at a level of sophistication or planning necessary to make a body go away. And a body pushed into Acapulco Bay at Condesa Beach would be a speed bump for joggers by morning.

Detective Clay Stinson, Evansville P.D.

Besides, Joe had last been seen in broad daylight. With Don. Don then mysteriously appeared in Joe’s car and later the car was found in Mexico City. Surely Don could shed some light on the last days of his benefactor. When Clay Stinson finally caught up to Don he asked him to do just that but Don politely demurred; he’d lawyered up when he heard Clay was coming. He demurred again, somewhat more formally, at a 1987 probate hearing, invoking the Fifth Amendment 78 times when questioned about Joseph Derr’s fate. No one was sure whether it was an Indiana record, but it certainly put Don in the conversation.

Before I left Acapulco, I made arrangements to visit Zihuatanejo, but Jorge waved me off; it would be a fool’s errand. Why would Baggett kill Derr in another town, with witnesses all around? More likely, Jorge said, Derr’s body had been stashed far off the road to Zihuatanejo, Mexican Federal Highway 200, also known as Carretera Pacifico. My personal theory is that if the Contessa’s Volkswagen is ever found, whether in a wooded ravine or, with tires punctured, in a deep mountain lake east of Acapulco, it will contain whatever remains of Joseph Derr.

The ultimate answer to the riddle of Joseph Derr was locked in Donald Baggett’s mind – and given half a chance, Jorge was pretty certain he could shake it loose: “I didn’t finish the investigation. If I could talk to Mr. Donald Baggett I could get you some answers,” he said ruefully. “All the answers. It would take perhaps one hour. I am a very persuasive man.”

Under the law at the time, alas, Jorge’s persuasion would come to naught. As a U.S. citizen, Baggett could not be arrested and tried in the U.S. for a crime committed abroad; nor, as a U.S. citizen, could he be extradited to Mexico to stand trial. He could have, if he wished, affixed a bumper sticker to his car that declared I did it, and no legal entity could have done a thing about it. The law has since been changed.

Back in Evansville, Judge Robert Lensing did everything he could think of to keep Baggett – and thus Benton – from a windfall, even offering half of the estate as a reward. Ultimately, Lensing’s dodge was decreed illegal by a higher court, but not before an ungodly number of lawyers chewed off large chunks of the estate, like the relentless sharks that ate Old Man Santiago’s marlin before he could haul it from the sea. Baggett and Benton each ended up with just under 500 large.

I called and wrote letters to Donald Baggett for months after my return, but he never replied. I’d try again but it’s unlikely he’ll answer. He died on April 19, 2011 at age 77 and is buried in the St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Evansville. Most everyone else involved in the case is dead or off the grid.

I occasionally drive through the little town of Benton, where it all started. It looks just about like it did in 1988: It’s hard to say what town fathers might have spent Joe Derr’s inheritance on – nothing too public given that their windfall put them into legal bed with a suspected murderer and flowed from the success of a man exiled long ago for taboo sexual desires. It still looks like a dangerous place to be different.

My epic story about Joseph Derr’s last days in Acapulco ran under the headline, “The Perfect Murder?”

I have few regrets about my days as a newspaperman, but that question mark is one of them.   

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