It was show time in the Texas Panhandle. Or so it seemed when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ernie Holmes went on trial in a crowded Amarillo district court last week for "possession of a controlled substance, to wit cocaine." The 6'3", 260-pound defensive tackle had been nabbed by local cops in a motel rest room on January 31, 1976, part of a silver bullet containing the drug in his hand. Billed as a "simple case of credibility" by Holmes' attorney, Dick McLaughlin, the trial began with the lawyers for both sides straining the belief of prospective jurors by dropping lighthearted asides and hints of intrigue, like announcers warming up an audience for Who Do You Trust. "This is the most boring part," Assistant District Attorney Morris Overstreet interjected at one point in the jury selection, "and I can assure you it will get much more interesting from this point on."
To his credit—and occasional exasperation—Judge George E. Dowlen was acutely aware that the notoriety of the case could create a "circus atmosphere," and despite the massing of the national media and curiosity seekers of all stripes (at one stage a poker-faced Amarillo Slim joined the gallery), the judge ensured that justice was served.
Still, the three-day trial had its sitcom moments, not the least of which was the erection of a full-scale replica of the motel men's room where Holmes was arrested. Unfolded like a giant Chinese puzzle, the mock-up, designed by a local architect, so dominated the courtroom that the judge and the jurors had to play peekaboo while District Attorney Tom Curtis hopped onto chairs to raise his objections.
None of this near-slapstick allayed the fears of the "dreadnaught of the gridiron," as the Amarillo Globe-Times characterized Holmes. His career in jeopardy and facing a prison sentence of two to 20 years if convicted, Holmes remained visibly distraught through most of the proceedings. During breaks, he stayed in the courtroom and clutched the hand of his pregnant wife Yvonne as he reread his favorite passage in the Living Bible: "Oh Lord, fight the battles that are fighting me."
March 7, 1977
Aside from the issues in the case there were imponderables: Could a black man, a stranger to the area, get a fair shake from a predominantly white jury? And how widespread was the feeling about drugs as expressed by a local politician who preached that marijuana users "should not be in jails, but under them"?
The most threatening prospect of all to Holmes and his lawyers, though, was the dredging up of a 1973 shooting spree in which the big lineman, while driving aimlessly through eastern Ohio after an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile with his first wife, began firing at trucks with a revolver and a shotgun he used for hunting. In the ensuing manhunt he abandoned his car and wounded a police helicopter pilot before being apprehended in a wooded area, barefoot, shivering and complaining of mental strain. "Three trucks tried to drive me off the road, and it was all I needed to snap," he said by way of explanation.
Diagnosed as suffering from "acute paranoid psychotic decompensation," Holmes pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was put on probation for five years. After spending two months in a Pittsburgh psychiatric hospital, he pronounced himself "back on the bases" and returned to the Steelers.
Though Holmes' rehabilitation procedures helped reduce his probation to two years, he continued to gain attention as the result of such seemingly aberrant acts as shaving his hair into the shape of an arrowhead—to "point the way," he said. Actually, it was an attempt to compete with the colorful nicknames of Steel Curtain cohorts Mean Joe Greene, Mad Dog White and Hollywood Bags Greenwood. But though he tried for acceptance as Arrowhead Holmes, he was always just plain Fats, a voracious eater who gains more than 50 pounds and bulges to 315 in the off-season.
More recently. Holmes began expressing his individuality by talking tough. One of his favorite growls is, "I like to eat raw meat. It gives me the feeling that I'm devouring a wild animal. It gives me a cannibal feeling." Another Holmes theme goes. "I don't think I'm a violent person, but sometimes at night when we're on a road trip, I look across at my roommate in bed, and I want to throw him against the wall."
Late on that Saturday night in January 1976, just two weeks after the Steelers beat the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, it was Holmes who was forced to confront a wall while being searched by police in the motel rest room in Amarillo. En route to a religious conference in Phoenix, he had stopped in Amarillo to attend the wedding reception of former Steeler Chuck Beatty at a Howard Johnson's motel. Also in attendance were Joe Greene, Cedrick Hardman of the San Francisco 49ers and Ron Shanklin, a former Steeler, now with the Chicago Bears. "Most of the guys had played their college football at North Texas State," recalls Shanklin, an Amarillo resident. "We had been telling Ernie for years what great parties we had and he finally decided to make this one. Well, it was a great party until..."
Until Holmes went to the men's room adjacent to the Rum Keg Lounge. Moments later. Holmes says, a young black man approached him from the rear and asked him to buy a "silver bullet" as a souvenir, because he needed money to get home. "He kept nagging and pestering me." Holmes says, "so I gave him $20. No sooner had he shoved the bullet into my hand then these three guys came rushing in. They didn't even stop the black kid. He went right out the door. They headed right for me and grabbed me and started telling me I had cocaine on me."
Remarkably, after identifying themselves as police officers and inspecting Holmes' Super Bowl ring, they gave Holmes a business card for the Metropolitan Intelligence Unit ("Service Thru Cooperation") and told him to call their office on Monday morning. "I could tell Ernie was dumbfounded," says Shanklin. "He doesn't take dope. He might have already drunk a fifth of cognac, which he likes, but he doesn't play around with dope."
Later, in a 4 a.m. call to lawyer McLaughlin in Youngstown, Ohio, Holmes pleaded. "I've been framed, Mr. McLaughlin. I've been framed."
"Ernie, you've been drinking," McLaughlin said. "Go to bed and I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Dutifully, Holmes stayed over in Amarillo and reported to Justice of the Peace Roy E. Byrd on Monday. As Shanklin remembers, Byrd announced, "I'm not one bit impressed because the defendant is a famous football player. I'm going to see that this case gets plenty of publicity." Then, after instructing his secretary to call the local media, Byrd made Holmes wait until all the cameramen and reporters were assembled before releasing him on $1,000 bond. "It should be $100,000," Byrd said.
Holmes' original trial date was postponed so that he could play for the Steelers last season, and the State of Texas vs. Ernest Lee Holmes was set for last Tuesday. The battle lines were drawn. "I think it will be a real test of the system," Assistant D.A. Overstreet predicted. "I think we'll find out if special privileges apply—whether someone is to be tried on who they are or on what they've done."
For his part, Amarillo's Charles Rittenberry, Holmes' co-defense attorney, took dead aim at the three arresting officers. "Most people around here don't give the Metro Squad much credibility," he said. "They're like the Keystone Kops, always staging these big secret raids and indicting the wrong people."
Indeed, sharing the headlines with the Holmes trial last week was another case in which three student court reporters were suing the Metro Squad for breaking into their apartment in the wee hours on a supposed drug raid. Though the door was unlocked, it was smashed down with a sledgehammer and nine undercover agents stormed through the apartment, breaking a television set and terrorizing all with their "Dirty Harry guns." Trouble was, they had the wrong apartment.
"It goes on all the time," says Dee Miller, a former Potter County (Amarillo area) district attorney. "They're just sloppy policemen. They watch Starsky and Hutch too much."
When the Holmes trial got under way, the sight of Judge Dowlen sucking on a toothpick and the D.A. chomping on a chaw of Brown Mule gave the proceedings a right downhome flavor. Once known as the Singing D.A., Dowlen has won drug cases by intoning such lyrics as Merle Haggard's Okie from Muskogee ("They don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee") during his closing arguments.
D.A. Curtis is another breed. "Old Tom tries cases the way the Pittsburgh Steelers play football," says one attorney. Going into the Holmes trial, Curtis' record for drug convictions was 51-0.
The first witness for the state was Sergeant Jack Magee. On the night in question, Magee testified, he and the other two Metro Squad officers "were working prostitution." Before confronting Holmes, he said, they had visited "three to six bars attempting to get prostitutes to solicit police for sexual purposes. We just acted like regular people. We played pool, danced, ordered a round or two."
About 11:30 p.m., he said, the trio visited Howard Johnson's and immediately went to the men's room. Magee, who was the first one in, said, "I saw two colored males exchanging what I thought was a marijuana cigarette, red, white and blue in color. As I approached, the smaller man stepped out of view and I saw the subject toss something on the floor." It was half of the silver bullet, a cocaine sniffer, which tests later showed contained 225 milligrams of the drug. When he asked Holmes about the bullet, Magee said, "The subject said, 'I'm a dealer in silver plate. I buy sterling silver all the time.' "
Under cross-examination, Magee said that he did not find the marijuana cigarette, only a rolled-up, red, white and blue matchbook cover, which he left on the floor. Noting that Magee is taking courses in police science, Rittenberry asked, "Do you think your instructor would be proud of you for leaving that evidence there?" Magee gulped, "No." Later, under oath, the two other Metro Squad agents backed off their original stories that they, too, had seen what looked like a marijuana cigarette.
Then came the construction of what Curtis called the "indoor outhouse." Circling around it, he shouted to the judge over one of the walls, "I just don't hardly see how we can try a case without a courtroom. And we don't have a courtroom anymore. We've got a bathroom."
When Holmes took the stand he recounted his boyhood on a farm in Jamestown, Texas, and his days at Texas Southern. He told of his volunteer work at a juvenile detention home, and of how two years ago he bought his old high school and turned it into a youth center and how he had been "born again." During a break, the judge allowed, "I've been watching the jurors and they like Ernie."
When the trial resumed, Curtis used a replica of the rolled-up matchbook cover to show how it could be used to scoop cocaine out of the silver bullet. To Holmes, Curtis said, "You were giving a snort to someone, weren't you?" Holmes, eyes narrowing, said, "No." "Truth is," said Curtis, "you were so loaded on beer, champagne and cocaine, you don't know what happened in that rest room."
When Rittenberry summed up the case as another example of the "infamous Metro Squad in action," there was laughter in the courtroom. Accusing the officers of "lying with scheme and design," drinking on duty, leaving their guns in their cars, allowing a suspect to escape and failing to mark and pick up evidence, he concluded, "Are you proud of your Metro unit? Of course not. I think you're ashamed." Calling the bathroom caper "probably the worst drug case ever tried in Potter County," Rittenberry asked the jury, "Would you rely on these officers in a business deal? Would you base a decision in your life on their word? I am asking you not to base a decision of Ernie's life on it."
In his closing remarks, Curtis said, "Putting the officers on trial is an old trick. But they're what keeps the cocaine out of men's rooms. They're what's between the cocaine and you, your kids and relatives." Of Holmes, he said, "You heard him say that he thought the silver bullet had something to do with the Lone Ranger? Can you believe that? You really think that man in the men's room was trying to get him interested in the Lone Ranger? It's an incredible story, not worthy of this court or anywhere else.
"From the very beginning it's been football, football, football," Curtis concluded. "They couldn't wait to tell you that he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But this trial isn't about football. It's about dope and what threatens you, me and every member of the community."
After deliberating over a round of Dr. Peppers for 80 minutes, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty. "Man, this is like 10 Super Bowls!" Holmes exclaimed as the courtroom resounded with applause and cheers.
Afterward, one of the arresting officers, Sergeant Magee, wished Holmes well. Curtis extended his congratulations, too. Rittenberry concluded, "That jury just flat fell in love with Ernie." Well, not exactly. "The way I figured it," one court officer said, "there were a bunch of drunk guys in a men's room one Saturday night and none of them remember what happened. Big deal."
And as Holmes rumbled off in his van, he said, "It's going to be hard for me not to be All-Pro this season. I'm going to kill everybody on the field."