A Stranger In Lyons
Apr. 13, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Let’s start with the basics. Calvin Trillin is a brilliant writer and a long time contributor to the New Yorker.* While he is a food critic and a humorist,* he also puts pen to paper on all manner of other things. Clarence Mock III is one of Nebraska’s foremost criminal defense lawyers. **
How Trillin and Mock became friendly and traveled together in and around Burt County, Nebraska is the subject of this post. It’s a murder mystery too!
Anna Marie Anton died in the small town of Lyons in Burt County as a result of the actions of Gregory Webb, the Lyons’ police chief and her lover. But, forgive me, I got ahead of myself.
Strangers almost never move to Lyons. It’s not that Lyons, a farm community of 851 people according to 2010 census, is unpleasant. It is just that it is very remote.
Anna Anton was a small, frail woman in her 30s who walked with a severe limp due to a horrific car accident that also scarred her face. Walking even a few blocks was almost impossible.
Why had she moved to Lyons?
She told certain townsfolk that she feared for her life and she was vague about her previous whereabouts. She implied that her former husband was involved in the drug trade.
Anna was extremely devout. Some might have thought of her as a Catholic mystic. In addition to attending Mass on a daily basis at St. Joseph’s, she kept holy water in her apartment along with other symbols of her faith. She relied on a nun in some other place to forward mail to her, or so she told her friends in Lyons. Although she had little money, she kept and worshiped three large dogs that she referred to as “her babies.”
To be frank, Anna was odd. But the good people of Lyons looked after her (and the dogs). They paid for her heat and groceries, and drove her where she needed to go.
Gregory Webb had injured his leg in Rhodesia. He had gone there to join a mercenary army. Since the injury cut short his career choice, Webb had to find other work. He was an imposing fellow. He also loved guns, particularly military weapons. He enjoyed reading Soldier of Fortune magazine. While there was not a lot of crime in Lyons, Webb was hired as the town cop to keep it that way. And, he did, or so everyone thought.
Anton and Webb lived in the pink house. Webb lived upstairs and Anna and her dogs downstairs. Some people thought Anton was in the witness protection program and Webb was guarding her. But to her fellow believers, Anna complained that Webb’s antics with a local floozy disgusted her.
On the night of Dec. 16, 1986, Anton disappeared. She was found on Dec. 27, naked and shot 3 times. Aside from the eventual realization that she and Webb were lovers, there were also other factors, although strictly circumstantial, that tended to implicate Webb. That is, until the forensics techs using luminol found her blood in the hallway outside her apartment and even more on the wall beside the stairs leading up to Webb’s apartment. But, by then he was gone.
For some reason, Trillin learned of the mystery and came to Burt County to investigate. That was sometime in late 1987. At that time, Webb had not been found despite the issuance of a murder warrant.
Mock was sitting in his office in Oakland, Nebraska, the “Swedish Capital of Nebraska.” He had been the young Burt County Attorney at the time of Anton’s death.*** He took a call from someone calling himself Calvin Trillin. Mock hung up on the caller after first observing that he was on the other phone with Mother Teresa.
The former prosecutor was undoubtedly the only person in Burt County who knew of Calvin Trillin. With the exception of Mock, I am positive that there were no other New Yorker subscribers in and around those parts.
Trillin was persistent. He called back and convinced Mock that the caller really was Calvin Trillin. Mock agreed to meet with him.
The two hit it off right away. Mock took Trillin on tour of Burt County and, in particular, Lyons and the surrounding environs. They traveled the roads and toured the nearby Indian reservation, the greasy diners and the forlorn bars where the patrons consumed beer wearing seed corn caps.
Near the end of their travels, Trillin asked Mock if he could explain why the prim and very religious Anton engaged in an affair with the rough and tumble Webb.
Trillin wrote about Mock’s response:
Who really knows why Gregory Webb and Anna Anton were involved with each other in the first place? . . . “You have to wonder what she and Webb talked about,” Clarence E. Mock III, who was the county attorney at the time of the murder, has said. “I can’t see relating Catholic mysticism to AK-47 attack rifles.” A murder trial might not solve the mystery about Anna Anton that had engaged residents of Lyons to begin with: Why had a stranger moved to town?
Calvin Trillin, American Chronicles, A Stranger in Town, at p. 82, The New Yorker (February 1, 1988).
Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)
Post Script: Mock knows now that Webb fled to Guatemala and stayed there until he hitched a ride on a fishing trawler that allowed him to return to Florida. He was captured in 1996 thanks to the help of a viewer’s tip after his case aired on the television program Unsolved Mysteries. F.A. Gossett, then a state judge and now one of our Magistrate Judges, appointed Mike Levy to represent Webb. (Levy was a great guy who I would later tease unmercifully for his “creative billing” under the Criminal Justice Act. Sadly, Mike’s gone now, killed by the lymphoma that I also contracted but beat.) Levy got Webb a deal he couldn’t refuse and Webb pled no contest to manslaughter and tampering with evidence. He was released from prison in 2002.
*Trillin was recently attacked by “special snowflakes” (including the website Jezebel) about a tongue in cheek poem he wrote regarding Chinese food–all the more reason to love Trillin.
**I have known and admired Mock since the late ‘70s when we sat next to each other through an intensive trial school put on by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)
***Mock had lost his office by 468 votes. Mock told me recently that he owes these fine folks each a “box of chocolates and a warm and sloppy kiss.” That’s because the loss gave him the opportunity to become a highly regarded CDL, a fellow in the American College of Trial lawyers, and past President of both the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. Ironically, one of Mock’s most prominent cases involved him as a special prosecutor who got a conviction of the head of Nebraska’s biggest crime lab for planting evidence against two innocent persons in a murder case. Mock won in a bench trial before a state judge (a former law school classmate of mine) despite the fact that the feds failed in their earlier prosecution of the disgraced CSI chief.