The Vanessa Leggett Saga  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2002

The Vanessa Leggett Saga   

An aspiring true-crime author with virtually no writing credentials spent nearly six months in jail rather than turn over all of her notes, tapes and other materials to law enforcement authorities. Here’s a look at the making of an unlikely martyr for the First Amendment.

By Guillermo X. Garcia
Guillermo X. Garcia is the former Southwest correspondent for USA Today. An Austin-based writer, he also served as Latin American bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and has reported for the Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Times Herald, Arizona Daily Star, Orange County Register and Cleveland’s Plain Dealer.     


On a muggy day in mid-April 1997, Houston police discovered Doris Angleton's bullet-riddled body inside her two-story, red-brick Tudor home. She lay in an upstairs hallway in a pool of blood, shot 12 times in the head and chest.

The homicide would reverberate through the higher echelons of Houston's old-money society. But the effects of Angleton's death would be felt beyond the gilded confines of the River Oaks Chardonnay set.

After a few dead ends, police eventually turned their focus on Doris' husband, Robert Angleton, friend and full-time bookie to Houston's powerful and wealthy. But for years, the case remained unresolved. Robert Angleton's brother Roger said that Robert had hired him to carry out the murder. But Roger apparently committed suicide in jail while awaiting trial. Robert Angleton was acquitted in August 1998.

Shortly thereafter, the feds entered the picture. On January 25 of this year, Robert Angleton was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and murder for hire, as well as a firearms violation.

Beyond the criminal case, the brutal killing of the 46-year-old former model continues to cast an ominous cloud over how journalists do their jobs.

A wannabe true-crime author who had immersed herself deeply in the case refused to turn over notes, tapes and other confidential source material to a federal grand jury last year and found herself jailed for contempt of court for 168 days. Her incarceration far exceeds the previous record held by William Farr, of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, whose refusal to name the source of a leak in the Charles Manson murder trial in 1972 earned him 46 days in the Los Angeles County Jail.

And so Vanessa Leggett, 33, has become the centerpiece in a legal battle over when and whether journalists can fend off efforts by law enforcement officials to subpoena their notes and tapes--in this case all of them, and all copies. The case also spotlights the question of just who is a journalist, and who decides.

As a result, Leggett, whose published body of work until recently included just two articles in technical manuals, has become an unlikely symbol of the cause of press freedom in a contretemps that has drawn international attention.

"The freedom of press in America, nothing less than the truth, is at stake here," Leggett declared in an interview in December at the high-rise Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston. "And I'm willing to remain here in support of that principle."

Leggett is variously described as a "cop groupie" and a "thorough, no-nonsense" researcher. A legal-writing and English instructor at the University of Houston's downtown campus, she had been researching the Angleton case for three-and-a-half years at the time of her incarceration.

At the time, Leggett's writing credits were limited to two articles, "Parricidal Familicide" and "Prescription for Murder?: Homicide and Suicide Among Pharmacologically Treated Juveniles," published in obscure FBI Behavioral Science Unit manuals. (She has since written an article about her ordeal for Newsweek.) Ironically, lawyers from the Department of Justice--the FBI's parent agency--would argue in court that Leggett is not a journalist and should not have a reporter's privilege under the First Amendment because she had never had any of her works published.

Media experts and First Amendment lawyers say that going after Leggett couldn't have advanced the federal investigation of Angleton because prosecutors for years have had copies of Leggett's most explosive material. Media watchers also fear that the U. S. Attorney in Houston and, by extension, his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, are embarking on a course that can only lead to diminished protection for journalists, particularly freelancers. They say that jailing Leggett reflects an effort by the Bush administration to use grand-jury subpoena powers to obtain a reporter's confidential information and to secure the names of sources who have been guaranteed anonymity.

Government officials, citing the secrecy of the grand-jury process, would not comment for this article, nor have they throughout the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Clark, the veteran prosecutor in charge of the Angleton probe, has said he is simply trying to solve a crime with all of the available tools. Prosecutors have argued in court that they believe Leggett has material that could help solve Doris Angleton's murder.

They have convinced federal district and appeals courts that journalists have very narrow legal rights. And those rights fall far short of refusing to obey a federal grand-jury subpoena. Prosecutors have also insisted that they have not targeted Leggett because she is a freelancer.

Media groups and lawyers who specialize in First Amendment cases dispute that notion. They counter that no other reporter was approached by the government, despite the widespread publicity the case generated. Leggett's supporters say she was targeted not only for her extensive knowledge of the case but also because she is on her own, with no media company to back her up.

Leggett's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, who has lost in two courts, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to sort out the issues.

Arizona State University media professor Kyu-Ho Youm says if Leggett's jailing is upheld, "it'll be setting a precedent with considerable ramifications for the press, because the journalist's privilege notion will be interpreted in a further constrictive way."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agrees. "The First Amendment guarantees that journalists will act independently, not as investigative tools of government," she says. "That First Amendment protection is there not just to protect the Washington Post reporter. It is intended to cover and protect the rookie reporter as well as the veteran. That is not happening here."

Austin attorney Joe Turner, a former state and federal prosecutor, points out that it is not unusual for prosecutors "to issue kitchen-sink subpoenas. You want as much information as possible up front, so you won't be surprised or embarrassed down the road at trial." Nevertheless, he adds, "I have never seen or been involved in a case where the prosecution wanted everything from a witness, to the point where the government sought to take all of the material and the witness was not allowed to make copies. That is most unusual."

Dallas attorney Bob Latham, who has specialized in First Amendment cases for nearly two decades, sees dire consequences for reporters if the government prevails. "I don't think you can understate the First Amendment implications of this case," he says. "It sets a very, very dangerous precedent. The government set out to subpoena [Leggett] as a matter of first resort. It is supposed to be done as a matter of last resort, when there is absolutely no other way that the government can get the information...and it has to prove why it needs the information and that only through a subpoena will that be accomplished. The government did none of that in this case."

The First Amendment, he adds, exists "not for the protection of a journalist, but to protect and guarantee that the public has a free flow of information. If the government starts subpoenaing journalists' confidential information when there is no reason to, pretty soon there is not going to be any confidential information."

At first, police seemed stumped by the April 16, 1997, murder. Angleton's business as a millionaire bookmaker was not widely known outside the tightly knit group of people who placed bets with him, fellow bookies and the few police investigators to whom he supplied information.

But as details about his private life emerged, investigators speculated that Doris had either been killed by rival bookies jealous of her husband or that the person who shot Doris actually meant to kill Robert. She simply had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there was more to the story: In addition to servicing the betting needs of Houston's elite, Robert Angleton was a paid informant for the Houston Police Department. And a valued one--people familiar with the case say for years he gave authorities solid tips and leads that resulted in a number of arrests.

Several weeks after the shooting, police in Las Vegas detained Angleton's brother Roger, a one-time San Diego real-estate agent, on charges unrelated to his sister-in-law's death. When Vegas police took him in, they found $64,000 wrapped in paper that had Robert's fingerprints on it. They also found a tape recording in Roger's briefcase of two men apparently planning to do away with Doris. Investigators were convinced that the two plotters on the tape were Robert, then 48, and Roger, then 55. One voice on the tape repeatedly referred to "my" house and spoke in detail about Doris Angleton's routine once she arrived home. Texas prosecutors maintain that only one person could have such information: Robert Angleton.

Las Vegas police discovered something else in Roger's possession: typed instructions on how to deactivate the Angletons' home burglar alarm. After Roger Angleton returned to Houston to face murder charges with his brother, his attorney introduced him to Leggett. Her fascination with homicide, in her words "the dark side of human behavior," attracted her to the case, as did the Angletons' lifestyle. And she was lucky enough to have known Roger Angleton's attorney, who agreed to give her virtually unlimited access to his client.

Leggett gained Roger's confidence, interviewing him in the Harris County Jail dozens of times. During some periods, she says, she visited him daily. Leggett accumulated what she calls "a gold mine" of information.

During 50 hours of taped interviews, Roger told Leggett that he had killed his sister-in-law, and that he had been paid to do so by his brother. In the tapes being sought by federal prosecutors, Leggett says, Roger also provided her with intimate details of the lives he and his brother led.

A Harris County grand jury indicted the brothers on capital murder charges. While preparing for Robert's trial, county prosecutors subpoenaed Leggett's materials. In a deal worked out by her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, she gave prosecutors the tapes of her interviews with Roger. They agreed they would not share the tapes with any other agency and would quietly return the recordings if they chose not to use them.

Leggett's tapes were not introduced at the trial because the judge ruled them inadmissible hearsay, and she got them back. But "working copies" that once were in the possession of Houston police somehow found their way to the FBI, according to Leggett and her attorney. Houston police and prosecutors decline to comment, but there is no doubt that the U.S. Attorney's office had copies of the tapes from the onset of their investigation, DeGeurin says.

Shortly after Roger Angleton told Leggett that his brother had hired him and drawn up plans to kill Doris, Leggett says, a senior Harris County prosecutor visited him in jail. The assistant DA came to offer Roger a deal: If he agreed to testify against his brother, he might not be prosecuted.

Investigators had assumed, particularly after police found the incriminating tape of the plotters of Doris Angleton's death, that Robert had hired Roger for the hit. But they were nonetheless surprised when they heard the level of detail that Roger Angleton used in describing the killing on Leggett's tapes.

An agitated Roger put off the prosecutor, saying he'd have to consult with his attorney and would give an answer the following Monday, according to Leggett. "He had no interest or desire to be a snitch, unlike his brother," she says.

Leggett had visited Roger that day and was scheduled to return the following day to continue the interview. That night, he tried repeatedly to reach Leggett but was unsuccessful, according to jail telephone logs and inmates Leggett interviewed.

Roger was discovered dead in his cell the next day, an apparent suicide. He left behind a note taking responsibility for Doris' death. He also stunned authorities by absolving Robert of any role in the killing.

Leggett isn't convinced by a ruling by the Harris County Medical Examiner that Roger died of self-inflicted wounds. His demeanor when she last saw him--hours before he allegedly cut himself 50 times with a razor and bled to death--and what she calls strange occurrences before and after the death leave her with doubts. An inmate in the cell next to Angleton's told Leggett he heard a cell door opening that night--unusual since the wing was in "lockdown" for the evening. Jail officials say the case is closed and decline to comment.

At Robert's trial, meanwhile, prosecutors laid out their theory: He hired his brother for $1 million to murder Doris because she had decided to divorce Robert and he feared she would expose his bookmaking operation and name the famous names.

In court, Robert denied all responsibility and claimed that the purported plot was Roger's invention, an elaborate attempt to frame Robert and eventually extort money from him. As proof, Robert outlined a $100,000 extortion plot that Roger had attempted in the early 1990s. At the time, Roger worked for Robert's bookmaking operation, Robert Angleton said on a "48 Hours" segment that aired in January. But they had a falling out, and Robert decided he no longer wanted his brother in the business. Roger swore he'd get even, Robert claimed.

While the prosecution case initially looked formidable, problems quickly developed. The judge refused to allow the introduction of the "smoking gun" tapes Leggett had made. Then, prosecutors were stunned when the audio expert they hired to analyze the tape recovered by Las Vegas police determined that the voice of the other conspirator was not Robert's.

In the end, Robert Angleton was acquitted in August 1998 in what has been described as an embarrassment for the Houston Police Department and a humiliation for the Harris County District Attorney's office.

Shortly after he walked out of jail a free man, the federal government began to take an active interest in Robert Angleton.

Unlike her other meetings with FBI agents, the one in November 2000 had a formal air to it, as well as an edge.

Vanessa Leggett had spent years meeting and cultivating law enforcement officers as well as friends, competing bookies and customers of Robert Angleton.

For months, she had courted four Houston-based FBI agents, meeting them for lunch or cocktails. Among them was FBI Special Agent Cindy Rosenthal, the lead investigator in the federal government's probe of Robert Angleton. Getting "inside" the FBI agents was a small coup. She looked forward to every meeting with them, because she thought she was beginning to get them to open up, both about themselves and the case.

The meetings were often casual exchanges of information or gossip. Leggett was given hints of where the feds were going with their probe; they, in turn, learned much about the Angletons from Leggett, whom local authorities acknowledged was the expert on the subject.

But at the meeting in November 2000, the relationship changed dramatically: The agents asked her to become a paid government informant, DeGeurin said in court. In return for her cooperation, turning over what agents knew were her voluminous notes and tapes of interviews with Roger Angleton, the agents promised her funding for future research on her book, Leggett says. And they promised her that they would respect the confidentiality she had promised her sources--including the ones she faced across the table.

"I was trying to play it cool," Leggett says. "Ironically, I had been reading 'Black Mass' [a nonfiction account of two Irish gangsters used by Boston FBI agents] at the time. I got the feeling that they would attempt to use my CI [confidential informant] status to control my work, to try and tell me how or when to publish my book. That worried me, so I declined their offer."

But the agents were undeterred. The following June, they served her with a subpoena for all of her notes and tapes. When she refused to cooperate, she was jailed in July for contempt of court.

She speculates that the agents "would not have continued to meet with me for 11 months if they hadn't gotten anything out of it. They were cooperating because they thought I would be able to help them. As for me, I saw them as characters in my book, and I was developing those characters the more they told me...about their personal lives, their aspirations, and, yes, about the case. And all I could think was, 'Wow, I'm inside [the FBI] investigation.' I could not see down the road what they had in mind."

DeGeurin says authorities "thought they were gonna push her around for a while. They figured 48 hours in jail, my client would give it up, and she'd be out of jail before anyone found out. What they didn't figure about her is that she is a fighter, and she won't roll."

But neither U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon nor the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was moved by Leggett's argument. "You're swimming upstream," one jurist told DeGeurin of his pleading that Leggett's reporter's privilege exempted her from the subpoena.

The appeals court finding that upheld Leggett's jailing noted that journalists' limited privilege to defy a subpoena "is at its apex in the context of parties involved in civil suits...and at its nadir in [criminal] grand jury proceedings."

The court did not rule on whether Leggett is or is not a journalist (the government had convinced Judge Harmon that she was not). The appellate panel said if that were the question before the court, it would have used a test that Leggett would have passed: Was she gathering information with the purpose of disseminating it to the public?

The athletic Leggett--she is a scratch golfer and had been training for a planned climb of the Grand Tetons--adamantly stuck to her guns. An unswerving partisan of First Amendment rights, she was willing to spend time behind bars, no matter how much time, to uphold press freedoms.

Almost overnight, she became a cause célèbre.

Observers around the world decried the jailing of a journalist. Echoing sentiment heard from Madrid to Madras, an editorial in Zambia's Lusaka Post said that jailing Leggett "has undermined the United States' moral authority to intervene and seek the release of journalists from detention by repressive regimes."

Meanwhile, civil rights and media groups championed her; the Society of Professional Journalists agreed to pay half of her not inconsequential legal bill. But in the face of criticism of the government for its alleged attempts to curtail press freedoms, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston stood firm.

Prosecutors said they didn't know exactly what Leggett has, but they wanted it all. It could be that a search of her files would turn up leads or evidence to help prosecute Angleton. But a state prosecutor who has seen the files says, "There is no smoking gun."

Since Leggett had already turned over her tapes to state prosecutors, she may seem an unlikely martyr. Why was she suddenly so adamant about not cooperating with law enforcement officials?

For one thing, the deal DeGeurin cut with state prosecutors was far more limited than what the federal government was seeking. If prosecutors didn't introduce the tapes as evidence, they promised that she'd get them back and they would not share them with any other agencies. In addition, authorities said they wouldn't tell anyone that she had cooperated by handing over the tapes without a fight.

Second, she felt betrayed and used when FBI agents she had been schmoozing for months asked her to become an informant and, when she refused, hit her with the subpoena.

But most important was the extremely broad nature of the federal subpoena. The feds simply wanted everything, all of her tapes and notes and everything else, and they insisted on both originals and copies. She would be left with nothing.

In an interview in late December, Leggett hardly looked like a federal prison inmate--dressed in freshly ironed khakis, she wore a touch of makeup and red lipstick.

But from July 20, 2001, until January 4, she sat in the Federal Detention Center, with a view out her third-floor jail window of Houston's year-old, retractable-roofed Enron Field baseball stadium.

Each of her 168 days in jail was numbingly monotonous. She was incarcerated with about 115 other women, two per cell. After a 6 a.m. wake-up, she made her bed and cleaned the toilet and sink in preparation for the morning cell inspection. After breakfast, she had access to the common area and television set as well as the prison library.

She spent a lot of her time behind bars reading and writing--but not her book on the Angleton case. She says she feared authorities would confiscate anything she wrote about it.

"It's supremely boring," she said of her jail stint. "But it's given me lots of time to think and to read. I know that I'll be released, but it is a hardship being in here, not being able to write my book while all these events that are now very much a part of the story are happening around me.

"I'm careful not to talk to anybody about the case, and I'm just extra cautious about what I say to people in here."

Being in jail gave her a greater appreciation of simple things. "I miss writing my book, being stuck in freeway traffic and breathing air. I miss Starbucks, too. But I made my mind up before I came here that I would stick with it, so now it is just a matter of enduring the time. I know I'll be out of here eventually."

While she could not advance her book, she said she spent much time answering the nearly 500 letters mailed to her from around the world. That's when she wasn't talking to journalists: In one afternoon she did four network television interviews.

In 1996, a year after Leggett began teaching legal writing at the University of Houston, she became a part-time criminology instructor at the university's Criminal Justice Center.

A traumatic incident when she was 12 years old triggered her interest in human nature's darker aspects. "We lived in Tanglewood, a pretty well-to-do [Houston] neighborhood, and we were held up by armed robbers who broke into our house. I didn't understand it. Why were these men in hoods tying us up and why wasn't daddy, our protector, able to protect us in our own home?"

The case was never solved. Years later, she wrote about the incident in a college paper. As an adult the effects were still visible: "I'd go to the grocery store, and when the clerk's hand touched mine to give me back change, I would wonder, 'Is this one of them?' It was a chilling feeling, and it had a profound effect on my life."

The daughter of a Houston oilman, she grew up in an upper-middle-class home and attended private schools. Leggett earned a bachelor's and a master's degree from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, a small private college and seminary. While there, she studied theodicy, the theological investigation of good versus evil.

After college, she worked as a paralegal at the prestigious Fulbright & Jaworski law firm and as an investigator for, among others, Mike DeGeurin, who would later become her attorney. But writing was in her blood, she says.

In 1992, she launched her first book project after interviewing Robert Coulson, a Houston- area man accused of tying up and placing bags over the heads of five of his family members, whom he then set on fire. As would happen five years later in the Angleton case, her friendship with his attorney won her access to the jailed Coulson. She was confident her true-crime writing career was about to take off. But the project languished and the book remains far from completion.

Between her two writing projects, she kept her day jobs, teaching part time and working as an investigator. In the interim, she married Doak Leggett, who worked for an oil and gas contractor. She says her husband's support and his frequent visits along with her mother buoyed her spirits in jail.

Even from behind bars, "defending the principles of free speech by my actions," she held on with tenacity to her book project. This was no hard-bitten newspaper reporter who relishes a fight. She had cooperated with state prosecutors in turning over the Roger Angleton tapes but stuck to her guns when federal officials made their far broader demands.

She declines to comment on why the government has pursued her with such vigor, noting with a sly grin, "I'd better stay away from that."

Others are not so politic.

"The Department of Justice is harassing her, pure and simple," says Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The DOJ has to produce a narrowly crafted subpoena. What they have done instead is created a 'kitchen sink' subpoena; they want it all, and they want her to have absolutely no copies of her own material. That is punitive."

DeGeurin believes government prosecutors "just want to know what it is she is going to write before she writes it. That is called censorship, and in our society that is prohibited. They fear [FBI sources] spilled their guts about the investigation, and now they will be embarrassed by Vanessa's book. But why they can't find out from their own agents what it is they said to her, in confidence, is beyond me."

For years after Doris' murder, Leggett concentrated her energies on developing her book, finding and interviewing anyone who had ever run into the Angleton brothers. She was irresistibly attracted to the brothers' vastly differing characters and the lives they led.

Leggett wasn't exactly obsessed, but she followed the Angleton story long past Robert's acquittal, traveling to six states to interview the brothers' former friends and associates. She had reams of interviews and accumulated a great deal of forensic and crime-scene material, including photographs and a video of the Angleton home the night of Doris' murder.

She mentions James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential") and John Berendt ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") as authors whose writing she admires, saying: "The pulp that sits on the fiction table today is not what I am writing. I will faithfully portray the [Angleton murder], but I add little things, the atmospherics that really make a scene come alive."

For example, after Roger admitted he killed Doris, Leggett asked him whether he had been nervous inside his sister-in-law's home. "I was pretty much in shock at some of the things he was telling me" about the night of the murder, she says. "But I wanted to find out if he was scared, what he was thinking, were his palms sweaty, details like that, all the time thinking about details and how they would fit into the book."

Traditionally, reporters have enjoyed limited privilege; that is, in certain circumstances they have been allowed to legally keep confidential their work product and sources of off-the-record information. Shield laws, now on the books in 31 states, have institutionalized reporter's privilege.

Debate over defying a subpoena by refusing to turn over notes and tapes is not new, though it has been largely dormant for a number of years, says Dalglish. "But now there is a real risk, and people in the media are genuinely concerned that reporters' rights will be narrowed rather than expanded" as a result of the Leggett case.

DeGeurin has had his share of battles with the government. He was one of the attorneys who sued several federal agencies in the Branch Davidian wrongful death civil suit, after more than 80 members of the sect died in a central Texas fire following a months-long standoff with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Says DeGeurin, "To have the government unilaterally decide who is a journalist and who qualifies for privilege is a surprise that borders on the appalling."

He and media experts say the government has fired a shot across journalism's bow in the Leggett case and that reporters should expect more shots in the future. And they may be protected with a smaller, narrower shield.

Dalglish and others, including U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, are exploring ways of using the Leggett case to promote a federal shield law. Now, there is little uniformity in federal courts' interpretation of what privilege reporters have.

But many agree that the government should not be determining on a case-by-case basis who qualifies as a reporter and who doesn't. "While some things in the case are far from clear, one thing that is crystal clear is that the administration is not being sensitive to traditional protections afforded journalists by the First Amendment," says media attorney Bob Latham.

"It's one thing to have the view, as the government does, that no journalist is above the law. But it is quite a different matter when you see to what extent the government has gone to in its hunt for the truth. They not only want all of [Leggett's] material, but they want all copies. If that is not intrusive, I don't know what is."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clark declined to talk about the case because it is ongoing. He has said that because Leggett was not associated with any media organization, she did not have the same legal protection afforded mainstream reporters.

Leggett was released January 4, after the grand jury's term ended and the subpoena expired. Days later, she was working on her book again, still without a contract. Leggett said in late January that she continues to shop around for an agent to help her sort through overtures she received while jailed. She says she has "literally been inundated with offers for television movie-of-the-week, feature-length film and from book publishers" as a result of the heavy publicity surrounding her incarceration. "But I am not in a hurry, and I will sort through the offers at my pace."

While Angleton's indictment in late January eliminated the possibility that Leggett would be hauled before another grand jury, the prosecution could still summon her to the trial. U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby declines to say whether Leggett would be called to testify or whether the government would seek another subpoena to compel her to turn over her materials.

Leggett would return to jail, she says, rather than give up her notes and tapes. But despite the publicity she garnered in jail, Leggett wants to put her days in an 8-by-10 shared cell behind her.

She says the most surprising aspect of her saga is the way that "ordinary citizens, people with no stake in the media world, would understand that this treading of one person's civil rights poses a threat to all." It reminds her, Leggett said during the jailhouse interview, that "I have a duty to uphold. I promised my sources that I would keep them confidential. And I am going to."

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