Tribute to a Friend

TRIBUTE TO A FRIEND: RICHARD AUSTIN

CONVERSATIONS FROM DEATH ROW
Innocent Or Guilty?  You Be The Judge

I’ve talked about Richard Austin a lot in the beginning of the book—how he showed me the ropes, how to play cards and dice, and really helped me with my pool game.  I want to talk more about Richard now because he was such a good friend but, tragically, he wound up in prison on death row for 32 years. I mentioned it in my story about “Walking Naked Down the Road,” but here are the events that led up to his sad end.

As I described him earlier in the book, he was a flashy, high rollin’ big shot gambler who owned the Golden Cue pool room in the Memphis area  in the ‘70s. He was married to a beautiful blonde named Joanne. We hung around together and were also on the road traveling a lot. It was 1976 and the Golden Cue was a place that was always filled with a lot of activity and well-known players. Richard had a manager named Terry Casteel who worked behind the counter serving drinks and food, handing out balls and other things. The poolroom  had about  20 Gandys, illegal poker machines and pinball machines.  Many pool players would come to  Memphis to gamble with Richard including Fly Boy, Minnesota Fats, Ronnie Allen just to name a few of the greats. They knew if they could beat him they could win some serious money. Richard was making a ton of money. Before this time, back in the late ‘60’s, him and a friend stole a  safe, got caught with it in the back seat of their car and they both served a few years in jail for the crime.

It was around this time in 1976 that the FBI sends in an undercover snitch by the name of Julian Watkins (who owned a body shop in Memphis) to gamble.  They give him  a few hundred dollars of  marked bills and tell him to lose so they could bust the Golden Cue for illegal gambling. Julian loses money playin’ pool and then he gets in a poker and a three-card monty game and of course, he got messed up there. All the  pool players were in town gambling. A few weeks after Julian appeared on the scene  Richard goes to the mail box  and finds 17 warrants for various road players,  and one was for him!   A few of the road players were in jeopardy of being arrested for inter-state gambling because if you had a pool cue, a deck of cards, pair of dice and you were from out of state, they’d get you for interstate gambling paraphernalia.  A phony Memphis bible town law, of course.  (Now, this is all hearsay since I wasn’t there at the time, but  I’ve got 50 hours of audio tapes from Richard that he sent to me while he was on death row and he talks about how all of this came down.) As the story goes, after everyone gets their warrants to appear in court, Richard allegedly makes the comment in the pool room one day that he should just have this guy Julian killed.  According to the court documents, a Golden Cue employee, Marilyn Lee Pryor, told the courts when she testified against Richard that she heard  him  say, “Watkins should have his brains shot out.”

Also entering the picture was a guy named Jack Charles Blankenship who was on the run from the police. He was a killer who had escaped from prison and was hanging around   Memphis.  So, Terry Casteel and Charles Blankenship jumped in the car and rode over to see “the snitch” Julian Watkins. So they tell Julian,  “Look, we want you to come out here and tell us what it would cost to fix this damage to our car.”   They go outside and when they get out to the car, Charles pulls out a gun and shoots Julian Watkins seven or eight times in the head and neck.  Then they fled the scene. This happened on May 23, 1977.

Charles Blankenship was pulled over by a Memphis copy for drunk driving the next day and was arrested after trying to bribe the cop with $1,000. He got life in prison for the murder and died there.  Sometime after the time of the murder, Richard had a heart attack and soon after the Feds arrest him and he was put on trial without a proper lawyer to defend himself and they found him guilty and convicted him all within a four or five day period.  If that had happened now, the case would have dragged on  for several years. He might not have been convicted due to the lack of evidence. The murderer, Charles Blankenship actually told the Feds that Richard Austin had nothing to do with this murder, he did it all on his own.  So, they give Richard the death sentence, they give Blankenship life without parole, and they give this Terry Casteel character a 20-year sentence but he was out in six. Richard was sent to this  old  prison in Nashville which was built in 1898. The place had rats running around and everything else.

Richard was a very  intelligent person and he tried to make the best of it in prison..  He wound up teaching school on death row and he graduated about 20 or 30 death row inmates and got them a high school diploma.  Many of the people on death row have an IQ of about 40 and then 90% of them have about a fifth grade education. But, the prison guards, the warden; they all loved him because he was a model prisoner.

Richard told me that once  in 1985 in the old prison a riot broke out— they were in units called pods which are  like a barracks.  In the pod where Richard and the other death row inmates were, all these real dangerous inmates decided they were going to riot and kill several of the guards.  Probably one of the meanest guys in there came busting into the pod with several others and they had everybody in lock-down. So, the guy comes in with  this long steel rod and was going to spear one of the guards through the chest with it, so Richard jumps up and says, “Look man, you can’t be killing these guards, this guy has nothing  against you, it’s not the guard you have the beef with, it’s the whole system.  It’s not these guards; they’re just working here trying to support their family.”  The guy said he didn’t care, he’s going to stick him through, so Richard wrestles the spear out of this guy’s hand and sticks him in the chest and stopped the prison rioters from hurting these guards.  I think this was on film at the prison because every time he  had an appeal come up, they always brought up how Richard saved the guards and the guards really loved him because he really was a good guy.  Richard also organized a petition to shut the penitentiary down and  build a new one.  They wound up shutting this old penitentiary down and building a new one in 1989, and  Richard had his own cell on death row.  He had one of the few cells that had a shower in it which was really a perk.

When he sent me tapes—one by one over the years— he said  how he really loved taking a shower every day without being hassled by all these other guys.  He really thought that was the greatest thing ever.  He had a shower, a little TV that didn’t work very well and he had a boom box that he played and recorded  his tapes on when we were sending tapes back and forth.  Every day they let him out an hour a day to go out in the yard to play basketball or whatever. He was   booking all of the sporting events and betting cash and cigarettes.  Every morning he would get up and exercise for three hours.  He would do 5,000 sit-ups and 5,000 pushups, believe it or not, that’s pretty unbelievable.  The guy was 10 years older than me, so he wasn’t a young person doing this kind of exercising.

We corresponded through tapes for four or five years.  One  time a tape came in for  another death row inmate and the sender  snuck some sort of drug inside the tape, so the governor of course, shut that correspondence down so you could no longer send tapes or receive tapes out of death row, so we just started corresponding during the last years through writing letters.   It was amazing to see his letters and his handwriting and you would not believe how uplifting and motivating he was.  He was living his life through me in the outside world because I was one of his last contacts that he knew because most of his family had died, his brothers and his mother and his father, so he really didn’t have too many people left. I was one of the people that he stayed in contact with because he kind of was like a father to me.  In some of the tapes, he’s really bitter and mean and hateful, not towards me, but just toward the whole system and toward the country, especially the police. The tapes are kind of embarrassing to me because he really brags on me.  It makes me feel pretty good that he is so proud of how I have accomplished becoming a good pool player, and for staying out of trouble after being around all these thugs all my life.  He’s really proud of the way I turned out.

Tragically, he died of natural causes in his cell on death row on June 7, 2008.  He had heart problems, and he had diabetes so he may have had a fatal heart attack.  It was very  sad because he always planned on getting out of the penitentiary and coming and staying with me for awhile and playing poker, which I would have loved. On the tapes, we always talked about how he taught me to play poker and how to do everything else with cards and dice and everything, and he could just enjoy the rest of his life.  Sadly enough he was on death row for 32 years. He was on death row since he was 37 and he died at age 68.  I can’t even imagine my friend having to spend his whole life in a small cell he could barely turn around in.

I have about 50 tapes of our conversations and I want to make them available on a CD set which will be called, “Conversations from Death Row: The Story of Richard Austin—Innocent or Guilty?”

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