Chapter 4: Hijinks at the Paradise and the Last Man to See Howard Hughes Alive

Joe Derr was last seen alive at Acapulco’s Playa Hermosa

Unfreeze the frame and Donald Baggett and I are standing on a desolate Evansville street at 2 a.m. If he’s gone to all the trouble of killing his paramour, making his body vanish and confounding the Mexican Federales, the FBI, Interpol and Detective Clay Stinson of the Evansville P.D., I don’t really expect Don to cop to a murder that will cause him to forfeit a half-million simoleans. On the other hand, any reporter who’s tangled with a narcissist knows it’s not enough to evade exposure; he needs to convince you his lie is the truth.  

Abruptly, Don’s gaze shifted to an indeterminate point over my left shoulder: “Are you sure you’re alone?” he rasped.  I nodded in the direction of the pickup truck that just buzzed us – mildly concerned that Evansville’s Inbred Welcome Wagon might soon return with a cake – and replied: “Well, that wasn’t my mother-in-law.”

Nonetheless, Don was rattled, or at least had reconsidered his bluff and decided to fold his hand. He was about to claim the pot. What was left to play for?  He strode into the darkness without another word. I loped back to my hotel not entirely disheartened. Something had stirred my quarry from his lair and now we had a connection. Maybe I’d get another shot.

Which didn’t take nearly as long as I figured. The next morning the phone rang. It was Don. He told me to meet him again at the supermarket and I had a feeling it wasn’t because they were running a special on Hollandaise sauce.

He was more composed, and as psychologically opaque as he was physically translucent. He apologized for rousting me out of bed the night before. “I can’t talk for anyone’s benefit. I’m following the advice of my attorney. I hope it’s good advice.”

Oh, brother. Your attorney? Really? What’s an innocent man got to fear? I asked. What happened to Joe? C’mon, Don, I want to hear you say it.

He stiffened and stared straight ahead before replying in a whisper. “I don’t know. He just … disappeared.”

Fringe Benefits

Serving as Joseph Derr’s consort had its benefits. And after all, Donald Baggett had an ex-wife, two children and a girlfriend to support. Relationally speaking, he was a regular Swiss Army Knife.

Don stood to inherit roughly half of Derr’s estate, which at the time of his death was valued at well over $1 million. His children, LaDona Ann and Jay Chester Baggett, would receive $120,000 as a college fund.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Apparently one’s aging sugar daddy isn’t.

Don would also inherit Derr’s house, where, by the time the whole enchilada ended up on Judge Robert Lensing’s plate in 1987, seven years after Derr vanished, Don was living with Sherry Sparks. She must have made a mean tuna noodle casserole because she remained so ensconced even after – according to confidential Evansville Police documents shared with my Mexican contacts – Sparks told the cops Don dished about the killing during a bout of pillow talk. (Was it Dashiell Hammett or Truman Capote who said one should never write crime stories on an empty stomach?)

In late 1979, Joe and Don set off on their annual four-month pilgrimage to Acapulco. The relationship was beginning to fray. Joe was 73 and Don was 46 and the age difference was becoming a problem. There were fights and cold silences between the two men, according to the idle swells who gathered at the Playa Hermosa each winter for gossip, canasta, blackout drinking, adultery … and in this case, possibly murder. Talk about all-inclusive!

This was a younger set than Derr’s Evansville crowd, whose members were moving smartly towards the light, whence Titanic Thomas and Cy Ruthenberg awaited (Cy had dropped stone dead a few weeks after our interview). And while Evansville friends hid oily secrets beneath a sheen of social propriety, indulging and flouting one’s vices was the whole point of an Acapulco bacchanalia.

“At the Playa Hermosa, everyone ignores your bad side,” resort habitué and L.A. film executive Mary Dean Pulver told me. “Baggett was Joe’s bad side.”

I asked Mary Dean what kind of movies she made and despite her evasions – or maybe because of them – I got the strong impression they were the type furtive men carried out of seedy storefronts in plain brown wrappers.

“Do you know men who go after both men and women? Not sincerely or because they care about them, but cold-bloodedly?”

She paused, expectantly.

Hmmm, I wondered nervously, were these rhetorical questions or a request to play Cupid?

 “Well,” she said finally, “that was Don.”

Jorge Camps, Federale El Supremo

I arrived in Acapulco in July 1988, nearly a year after my midnight ramble with Donald Baggett in Evansville. I had just spent a hitch covering U.S. military operations in Honduras and had bugged my editor to let me jet over to Acapulco to see what I might dope out, Baggett-wise.

His reply should be carved into granite at the Newseum as an exemplar of the prime directive of all great editors: “Don’t spend too much money.”

I still have Jorge’s calling card

My main contact in Acapulco was the courtly Jorge Camps, Hefe de Securidad for the Acapulco Plaza Hotel, and alumni of the Mexican Federal Police, popularized as the Federales in Bogie’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As I prepared for my meeting with Jorge, I heard myself roaring, Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges! Since I was still inside the airport, though, others heard me roar, too. I slunk towards the baggage carousel.

Jorge, it turned out, was among the last people to see Howard Hughes alive. When Hughes’ jet touched down in Mexico City in 1975, it was Jorge who was summoned to the airport to issue Hughes a tourist card. A few months later, he was on hand to check Hughes out of the country before he lifted off for his desert hermitage. When the jet touched down, the Great Recluse was as cold as a mackerel. Well, we’ve all been to Vegas. Who could blame him?

And in 1974 Jorge put the clamp on mobster “Mooney Sam” Giancana, who graduated from domestic larceny in cahoots with a colorful cast of friends including Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo to involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to assassinate Fidel “Dictator for Life” Castro, and a fling with Phyllis “Mystery Woman” Maguire, the alleged mobbed-up mistress of J “F” K. Talk about a guy who got around. And it’s all true. Like they say in baseball, you could look it up.

Ex-federale Jorge Camps

Jorge, a compact and cultured man, told me that Giancana, who was hiding from the U.S. Attorney General as well as several emphatically unsanguine associates who comprised a felonious collective known as “The Outfit,” rarely left his lavish villa in Cuernevaca where he was canoodling with six of his closest heavily armed BFFs and several Dobermans who had been forced into a kind of canine Omerta by having their vocal cords cut. Jorge patiently explained that this was done so intruders would never hear them coming (perhaps he worried I’d assume the neighbors complained about barking), a precaution that could conceivably save money on both bullets and puppy chow.

The Mexican government declared Giancana an “undesirable” but had not the taste for a full-metal rumpus and decided instead to wait for him to step on a crack, so to speak. Conducting surveillance, Jorge noted that every morning at 6:30 Giancana walked out, unaccompanied, to his pool to swim. One morning Mooney Sam dove into one end of the pool and when he surfaced he was looking straight up the barrel of Jorge Camps’ Heckler and Koch .45. Giancana took his medicine without resisting, remaining as silent as a Doberman. “He was a professional,” Jorge recalled admiringly. (Alas, Giancana died a year later of sudden-onset lead poisoning as he cooked pasta in his basement. When they found him he had more holes than his colander.)

So I ask you: Could a young reporter who spoke but a few syllables of Spanish have made a better new best friend in Acapulco? Especially when you tossed Jorge’s charming wife Laura into the bargain? The gracious duo could not have been more helpful – or bought me more good will. Shopkeepers and maîtres d rushed to greet them when they walked down the street. A quick, hushed phone call got me instant access to sources who had dodged me, long-distance, for months – not to mention confidential Evansville police records I’d been denied in the U.S. but had been shared with Mexican authorities, each of whom seemed anxious to do Jorge a favor.

Jorge turned every scrap of paper he had on the case over to me, including his initial investigative report. Baggett, he’d written in 1980, “was a gigolo … a violent aggressive type” while Joseph Derr was “a person of economic possibilities inclined to attend places that homosexuals frequent with youths in Acapulco.”

Like vampires, none of the central figures in this mystery came out before madrugada – Spanish for the hours between midnight and dawn. And so as moonlight sparkled on Acapulco Bay Jorge and Laura appeared at my hotel and took me on a tour of key locations along Condesa Beach, which was and remains Acapulco’s gay party mecca. At one such gathering of carefree youth and their pederastic benefactors, at a club called Paradise, Jorge and I attempted to engage in meaningful dialogue with a lean and excitable Beau Brummell wearing a studded dog collar (and very little else) trailing a leash clutched by an older, rather stoic fellow, the bulge in whose Speedo may or may not have been caused by a cache of dog biscuits.

They nattered back and forth in Spanish and English but I couldn’t tell whether he was relating vital evidence or begging for kibble. “Is Lassie trying to tell us something, Jorge?” I ventured. Alas if little Timmy was indeed down a well it was willingly and with a gaggle of sexually adventurous compadres. We moved down the beach and as we passed strobe-lit establishments whose walls pulsated with dance music, Jorge described the particular sexual peccadillo identified with each. I was sorry I’d left my thesaurus at the hotel.

Jorge draped an avuncular arm over my shoulders and asked, with a wide smile, “So, my friend Miguel. What do you think of the varieties of sin Acapulco has to offer?”

 “Gosh, Jorge, I don’t what to think,” I replied sheepishly. “I’m a country lad. I had no idea there were so many ways to skin a cat.”

Next: Epilogue — A Coy Contessa, A Lover’s Spat … and Joe Derr’s Final Journey

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