Every family has stories that get passed down, circulated between siblings and children as noteworthy passages in a family tree.
Few are as lively as that of Stephenville resident Bethel Baker, but few family stories center on helping a wrongfully accused man escape a Mexican prison.
“It’s our family story,” said Deb Foster, Bethel’s daughter. “I grew up with this story.”
The story begins with a friendship Baker forged while serving in the Fort Worth Fire Department, one with a fellow firefighter named Carroll Simmons.
“We were firemen and fooled with cars,” Baker said. “[We] considered ourselves somewhat mechanics.”
“I saw where this guy was in prison in Mexico and I didn’t really make the connection immediately because [Carroll and I] didn’t work in the same station,” Baker said. “Somebody said something about [Carroll’s] brother and that’s when I realized it was his brother down there”
“A little later, I got acquainted with his parents,” he continued. “His dad and I were good friends. I was hearing all about D.A. being down there and things that were going on. He was down there 10 years.”
“Carroll went on vacation one time. He went down there and came back and said, ‘I’m gonna get D.A. out of there.’ I said ‘how are you gonna do that?’ He said ‘I’m gonna smuggle him out in a car.’”
Dykes “D.A.” Simmons
D.A. Simmons was a Fort Worth Crane operator with a checkered past when he started a week-long trip to Mexico on Oct. 14, 1959.
He had never been convicted of a violent crime, but he had convictions for burglary and auto theft. He had been treated in two mental institutions, the Wichita Falls Mental Hospital and the Federal Mental Hospital at Springfield.
D.A. drove his brother’s Oldsmobile to the border where the customs official noticed that the vehicle was registered to D.A.’s brother, William Carroll Simmons. The official reportedly advised him to get his tourist card in his brother’s name to avoid complications.
Simmons spent the first night in his car to save money and was shaving in his car mirror when he met Jose Mancha, a resident of Allende who spoke English.
In a later interview, Mancha said he found the act ludicrous and started to laugh. They started a conversation and D.A. seemed pleasant enough that Mancha invited him to finish shaving at his home.
D.A. had dinner and visited with Mancha’s family before Mancha drove him to a nearby hotel, where the attendant registered him as “Larry Hall” because he had trouble pronouncing D.A.’s name. The next morning, Mancha was approached by two policemen who had heard that he had been spotted with an American man. They wanted to see him in connection with a triple murder.
A Family Tragedy
About 45 minutes before D.A. crossed the border, Dr. Raul Villagomez was crossing the border to return to Monterrey from a trip to San Antonio. The doctor was traveling with his sisters, Martha (21) and Hilda (18) and his brother, Juan (14).
After passing the federal check point, their vehicle broke down on Route 85. Raul told his family to remain in the car while he hitchhiked to the next big town, Sabinas Hidalgo, for help. Two hours later, he returned to find Juan and Martha dead and Hilda mortally wounded. All had been shot multiple times with a 22-caliber gun.
Hilda was taken to a hospital for treatment for her seven bullet wounds. She told members of “El Norte” newspaper in Monterrey the next day that a blue Chevrolet with Texas license plates stopped in front of their car after Raul left. She reported that a tall blond man with two gold teeth asked if he could offer assistance.
He attempted to start the car unsuccessfully.
Hilda told the reporters that they had started laughing at his broken Spanish when he pulled out a pistol and started shooting them.
A Changed Man
This description went into “El Norte” along with a sketch. When Mancha and the police visited D.A., they asked to see his teeth and found that the brunette man did not have any gold teeth or match the description at all.
D.A. had been sought for questioning after a list was made of all persons and cars crossing the border at that time.
Clearing the description, the officers left that morning. That afternoon, Mancha and Simmons were stopped by police who escorted them to the police headquarters in Allende. Mancha was to act as Simmons’ interpreter since D.A. didn’t speak any Spanish.
D.A. reported in later interviews that the authorities beat him and threatened him in order to coerce a confession to the crime.
“El Norte” presented a revised description the next day which described the suspect as having dark, smooth hair and a spot on the upper side of his lip. This matched D.A., who had a scar there. The fact that he used false names on entering the country and at the hotel would also be cited as suspicious behavior.
Simmons was taken to Hilda’s hospital room, where he was presented for a lineup. D.A. was reportedly the only American in the room except for his consulate officer, William Mitchell. D.A. was also noted to be in a white shirt and dark pants while those around him were in scrubs and uniforms.
Mitchell, reportedly not being familiar with Mexican law, didn’t protest to the proceedings.
Hilda was reported to say she was unsure when asked if Simmons was the killer. The prosecutor repeated the question several times after which, the dying witness, said she was ‘almost sure’ that Simmons was the murderer and added, “May God forgive me if I am wrong.”
D.A. Simmons was only one of two Americans in Hilda’s hospital room when she identified him as the killer, and that identification only came after prodding by authorities. Her testimony was used in the conviction and sentencing of D.A. to death, but an appeals court later determined that Hilda had not identified Simmons at all.
Tests were run in Monterrey on Simmons’ shirt that identified stains as blood, but a Mexican university later re-tested the stains and declared that the stains were not actually blood. Paraffin tests were also run on D.A.’s hands revealing nitrate residue, which were claimed to be from firing a revolver, but American technicians reported the paraffin test was inconclusive because tighter automatic handguns might not get any nitrate on the shooter and specks could be visible from cigarette ash as well.
Further complicating the matter was the arrest of a Dr. Don Elbert Martin in a separate shooting incident. Martin reportedly confessed to “having shot the three youths on the National Highway” in the presence of two reporters of El Norte newspaper in a story published Nov. 12, 1959.
Authorities planned to transfer Martin to Monterrey for questioning but orders came to release Martin to America, and he was transferred to a Mental hospital in Texas where his memory was allegedly compromised following shock treatment.
D.A. was sentenced to death on March 1, 1961.
D.A. maintained his innocence and started a vigorous letter writing campaign to politicians in America. Articles came out in publications like “Time,” “The Saturday Evening Post” and “Argosy” about the injustice committed. TV specials were also produced on Simmons’ imprisonment.
Simmons was granted a retrial due to the problematic line-up procedure, but was found guilty by the same judge.
An offer was extended to Simmons to commute the death sentence if he would confess, but he never did. His sentence would be commuted to 25 years anyways when the death penalty was abolished in Nuevo Leon, where he was imprisoned.
Articles noted that many in Monterrey, particularly the local press, believed Simmons to be innocent. Some of these supporters would provide shelter for Simmons’ family when they came to visit him.
Noted attorney Melvin Belli heard about the case and became involved and radio broadcasting pioneer McHenry Tichenor started raising money to help Simmons.
All of this publicity had caught the attention of Bethel Baker, but he didn’t know that D.A. was the brother of fellow Fort Worth firefighter until after he got to know Carroll and their parents.
Baker learned of the case and the problems D.A. had in prison, having been injured several times during his incarceration.
In March 1969, nearly 10 years after D.A. was imprisoned, Carroll visited D.A. and came back resolved to help his brother reclaim his freedom.
“Carroll went on vacation one time,” Baker said. “He went down there and came back and said I’m gonna get D.A. out of there. I said how are you gonna do that?
He said I’m gonna smuggle him back in a car.”
Since Carroll and Baker were both experienced with automobiles, they quickly realized what kind of car they would need a wide one with enough room for hiding space.
The men watched out for used cars that would fit their needs, but it was in a wrecking yard where Bethel laid eyes on the perfect car, a 1960 Ford Galaxie Starliner.
They happened to find one for sale in a shopper and bought it.
“We cut the bottom pan out and lowered the space between the back seat and the trunk,” Baker said. “We created a false wall.”
This secret compartment was in Baker’s words, “fairly comfortable,” after it was outfitted with blue foam rubber and the speaker was taken out so the grill would allow ventilation.
The hiding space wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny though as D.A. would be hidden by black cardboard on one side and he would have to hold the back seat firm so it couldn’t be lifted to reveal the hiding area.
The Starliner had actually recently seen work and was more than up to the trip, but it looked a little too clean.
“We drove it on the dusty roads and put some tar on it,” Baker said. This was in an effort to make the ride a little less suspicious.
Carroll decided to break his brother out on Easter Sunday. He traveled down there on Friday and actually stayed with his brother. Despite the trouble of his presence, D.A. was friendly with the guard and the warden had allowed D.A., to have a small house in the prison encampment, which almost operated like a small, enclosed town.
Carroll had been advised to pack light but decided that D.A., an amateur photographer, should have all of his equipment and packed the trunk full.
Carroll and D.A. had decided to head out after the morning head count, but were waiting well after the usual time since the count wasn’t run that morning.
Finally, they decided to risk it and loaded D.A. into the compartment.
The guards reportedly whistled in astonishment at Carroll’s full trunk when they opened it at the gate. The guards then moved towards the backseat but decided to skip the inspection, much to the relief of the driver and his hidden passenger.
Carroll drove carefully on the 295-mile route from Monterrey to San Antonio, choosing to take less traveled roads. At one point, he was stopped by a gate that had been dragged into a Mexican road. The nearby man said it was a toll road. Although Carroll didn’t believe it actually was, he tossed the man a dime for his enterprising spirit.
D.A. was reportedly in San Antonio where McHenry Tichenor had arranged a safe house before the prison knew he was missing.
D.A. would tell news outlets that he had disguised himself as a nun and left with the Sisters visiting for Easter. He told this story so as to avoid implicating his brother, but the family heard that it was suspected immediately that he had been smuggled out in the car.
“Mexico made a little noise, but he had become an embarrassment,” Baker said of Mexico’s halfhearted attempt to get D.A. back.
Baker asked his cousin, a retired highway patrolman if D.A. was wanted and his cousin informed him they really weren’t looking for him.
A Family Story
Deb Foster, Baker’s daughter, can remember her mother nervously walking around the house on Easter Sunday 1969 and realizing that their family friend was smuggling his brother across the border to freedom.
It wasn’t until Marilyn Simmons, Carroll’s widow, started sharing letters and photos that Foster started delving into her own research, even contacting some of the players like Dennis Fredrickson, an attorney who worked with Melvin Belli.
Both Marilyn and Baker’s family just wanted to share the actual method of escape, figuring that it would be safe to do so since many of the principal players have passed on.
“It’s our family story,” Foster said.
Proof of this can be found in Baker’s living room where a small model of a Ford Galaxie Starliner sits. It has been painted gold by Baker’s granddaughter to match a car that carried the Baker family on family trips and one time, helped a family friend carry his brother to his long overdue freedom.