Tom Huntley lives to tell about both sides of the criminal underworld

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Tom Huntley (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

East Dallas’ prodigal son

Tom Huntley suffered his first stabbing at age 13.

The sun was setting on the parking lot behind Granada Theater when Huntley took on one of the Lakewood Rats, a rival gang, in a fight for teen territory on Greenville Avenue in 1960.

Huntley was huge for his age, but the other guy was older. The fight was supposed to be without weapons, but when Huntley got the upper hand, his opponent drew a knife and stabbed him seven times. Huntley grabbed a brick and “nearly beat the guy to death,” he says.

Huntley was baptized into the East Dallas crime underworld that night and learned about street justice. It was the first of many lawless nights in a life that would take him through Dallas mafia, a bank-robbing spree, and into one of the deadliest prisons in Texas, before he found redemption by working on the side of law enforcement.

At least, that’s the way he tells it.

An East Dallas education

Huntley grew up in a home at the corner of Matilda and Oram where a power station exists today, and attended Robert E. Lee Elementary. His father was a police officer and fire chief in Highland Park, but he was close with his grandmother, who lived down the street on Oram. He was a sheltered youngster, not even allowed to walk down to the Arcadia Theater (now Trader Joe’s).

He was embarrassed to be accompanied by his grandmother to the movies or to get his hair cut on Lower Greenville. But the guidance proved warranted. On his first solo trip to the movies, he was caught in the bathroom smoking cigarettes. He paid for it when his grandmother, who always kept him on the straight and narrow, beat him senseless.

“When she died, I went off the chain,” he says.

Following the fight behind the Granada, Huntley formed a gang to rival the Lakewood Rats, though he didn’t have a name for his crew. They extorted businesses up and down Greenville, threatening to smash windows or beat owners unless they paid.

“They usually paid,” he says.

One day he decided to rough up the wrong business. He was in Mitchell’s, which had slot machines and other gambling, when the owner told him he might want to make a call before he did anything to this establishment. Huntley made the call and a man answered.

“You better get down to my place,” the voice warned.

“Where is your place?” Huntley asked.

“Campisi’s,” Joe Campisi said.

Huntley could only think, “Oh shit, I am going to get shot.”

Huntley heard that Campisi had mob connections, though Campisi would deny it in a 1989 D Magazine piece. The older businessman took a shine to the young thug. Huntley says he became one of Campisi’s most trusted associates and learned many tricks of the criminal trade. He remembers standing in the kitchen with twin shoulder holsters loaded with two handguns while Campisi stirred a pasta sauce. “He let me do things that he would never let his family do,” he says.

Huntley remembers interacting with Jack Ruby at Campisi’s but never thought much of him. “I had the wrong heroes in my life,” he says, “but Jack Ruby wasn’t one of them.”

The troubled teen did well the rare times he attended classes at Woodrow. He was a basketball standout, but chasing money kept him on the streets. East Dallas was his playground. He frequented a strip club where 504 Grill stands today on Greenville. It had a real lion, he says. He also was known to sneak into Hockaday School, which sat at Belmont and Greenville at the time.

“I was more than welcome there,” he says. “I had problems with women but not in obtaining their affections.”

In 1964 Huntley was first shot, then arrested after a fight at Lakewood Park on Williamson. The bullet remained in his body after surgery (a friend cut it out one drunken night in New Orleans, years later). He appeared before Judge W.E. Richburg, who was known as “The Law west of the Trinity,” despite the fact that the Trinity ran west to east through Dallas. Huntley says Campisi greased the wheels during a 20-minute conversation with the judge before his trial, which ultimately saved him from jail time. The businesses he extorted, however, were granted restraining orders. He was 17 years old.

After graduating high school in El Paso and heading back to Dallas, he found a crew and began robbing banks. Throughout his early 20s, Huntley says he robbed 12 banks and made about $2 million, much of which was laundered through Stan’s Blue Note on Greenville, he says. But he didn’t escape his crimes unscathed. He once was sprayed with buckshot from a police shotgun.

Locked up

The life of crime caught up to him in 1970 when he was caught robbing a bank depot and sentenced to McKinney Prison. He hit a doctor and ended up in Eastham Unit in 1973, where he was incarcerated for nearly a decade says Robert Hurst, public information officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The unit was named by Newsweek magazine as one of the deadliest prisons in the country at the time. When inmates broke the rules at other prisons, they went to Eastham.

“The state owns three things: Land, livestock, and convicts, and that puts you at the bottom of the list,” he was told by a corrections officer when he arrived.

“It was like a slave camp,” Huntley says.

Huntley worked in the cotton fields of the sprawling East Texas prison, called the Ham, for two years. It felt like a lifetime. The prison sits in unincorporated land north of the Trinity River in Houston County, out of sight and out of mind for most. He still has scars on his back from whippings in the fields. Fighting, rapes and stabbings were the norm at Eastham.

“It was hell on Earth,” he says.

Huntley fought anyone and everyone at the 13,000-acre prison, and it earned him the respect of other prisoners and even the staff. But prison transformed him. He found religion. He wanted to do things differently.

“It didn’t break me. It changed me,” he says.

Huntley eventually became a building tender, which was an infamous role in certain Texas prisons. These prisoners were given special privileges and even weapons to keep order on the cellblock. It was cheaper than hiring more guards, and the violence at Eastham made it unsafe for guards.

During his tenure as a tender, Huntley quelled a riot at the still-segregated prison when overcrowding led other inmates to burn their tents and mattresses in the yard. An Oct. 6, 1986 Newsweek story describes the riot: “State officials had built tents in the southern yard to ease the overcrowding in the Eastham Unit’s main house, and now 250 inmates were repaying their kindness.”

The officers were scared to death, so Huntley and the building tenders donned white bandanas to signal guards in the tower not to shoot while they took on the other inmates. Newsweek continues, “As smoke filled the yard, the men dancing around the flames had bought a moment of anarchy that they mistook for freedom.” While the guards got together and made a plan, about 150 building tenders and their cronies organized and headed into the fray.

Newsweek says the tenders growled before the battle, a primal cry that frightened prison staff. Huntley says he was quoted in the article, though his name was changed. “We had clubs, bats, chains, knives, everything, and we formed what we called a ‘whupping’ line,” he told Newsweek. The only way inside was to run the gauntlet and take the beating that came along with it. It took all night, but eventually everyone was back in the cells. “Some of the guys you couldn’t recognize, and a lot were unconscious. I wasn’t sure if they was alive or dead,” Huntley told Newsweek. Huntley says ambulances ran prisoners to the hospital for 12 hours due to massive violence.

Huntley makes no attempt to hide his use of violence as a building tender, but he says overall the system worked. He tried his best to keep the peace among the numerous prison gangs. He dealt with the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate during his years as tender.

“I was over 3,000 maniacs,” he says.

His role in the riot earned Huntley paroled. He left Eastham and moved to Louisiana, after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in prison. He was teaching Sunday school when he met a Texas Trooper, who knew of Huntley’s past and approached him about working with the law enforcement tracking other criminals.

“I was like a bounty hunter,” he says.

Switching sides

Huntley was born for this role. His knowledge of the streets and his changed heart made him a complicated opponent to criminals. One of his first jobs was working in Trinity, Texas, where he spent 60 days building relationships with criminals and collecting enough evidence to make a drug bust. Eventually, more than 100 criminals were indicted in what Huntley says was one of the largest drug seizures in Texas history.

Huntley worked in narcotics with the Texas Department of Public Safety, various federal agencies, and police departments for over 30 years. He was a legal agent of the department and not a criminal informant. He worked all over Texas, including East Dallas.

“Covert operations were my expertise,” he says. “And I had a 100 percent conviction rate.”

Huntley trained other officers to work undercover, which requires a lot of quick thinking.

“I had the gift of gab; there is a psychology to it,” he says. “But you can’t learn that in a psychology class in college. I learned it on the streets and in prison.”

But Huntley couldn’t protect everyone.

In December 1988, Huntley was part of drug bust near the intersection of Columbia and Carroll in East Dallas. Huntley and Cpl. Lawrence Cadena of the Dallas Police Department were working undercover, buying drugs in the parking lot of a convenience store, when someone got spooked. One of the assailants opened the car door and shot Cadena several times, killing him, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit to remember fallen officers. Officers who were positioned nearby swarmed the area, and a gun battle broke out. Police shot and killed the assailant. Huntley tried not to work jobs in East Dallas after that, where he was haunted by memories of his old neighborhood.

The narcotic agents he worked with herald Huntley’s accomplishments. In a 2016 letter, Corwin Schachlin, major of the Drug Section of Texas DPS Criminal Investigations Division, wrote, “Mr. Huntley put his life at risk on numerous occasions during these investigations. I appreciate the assistance that we have received from Mr. Huntley.”

Now 70, Huntley stays busy running an import and export business with his wife. He still enjoys cruising the streets of East Dallas and a plate of pasta at Campisi’s, though he is a very different man than he was on his first trip into the Egyptian eatery.

He says of working with law enforcement, “I wanted to pay my state back for the mistakes I made as a kid, and I did, many times over.”

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