By Elva K. Österreich
Once upon a time there was a girl of 18 who was full of spit and vinegar. She had an abundance of energy, was not afraid of saying what she thought and walked with a bounce in her step which made her high heels click cheerfully.
It was probably her mouth that got her killed in the end, according to Valeta Sue Jones. Whatever it was, Ovida “Cricket” Coogler disappeared after leaving the café she worked at on March 31, 1949, only to be found 17 days later by some young rabbit hunters in the desert north of Las Cruces.
Jones is Cricket’s niece. While she was born after Cricket’s death, her mother told her much about the girl that she had loved.
“She was very spirited and kind of a loner,” Jones said. “She was very generous, if you needed something and she had it, she would give it to you without hesitation.”
She also called Cricket a tomboy, up for just about anything. The girl was adventurous and had a lot of influential friends ranging from Dona Ana County sheriff “Happy” Apodaca to some prominent members of the state Democratic party. Her murder is still unsolved after 71 years and the story involves not only state politics but also the torture of her black friend, Wesley Byrd. Apodaca was ultimately convicted for the atrocities he committed to try to wring a false confession out of Byrd. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerry Nuzum was later tried for Cricket’s murder, but the judge threw the case out after four days of listening to it stating there was no evidence. Nuzum was around at the time but clearly could not have committed the murder.
Paula Moore, Las Cruces author, wrote “Cricket in the Web” and published it in 2009. The book has been newly reprinted now for the occasion of the 70th year after Cricket’s death. Moore will be on site at the Downtown Blues Café in Las Cruces at 6 p.m. on March 31 for a book signing event. The Café is the same location of the Deluxe Café that Cricket worked in at the time of her disappearance.
“Cricket in the Web” is about the investigation into the girl’s infamous life and death and contains photos as well as creating a picture of the times.
“The most important photo I found in all my research is one they couldn’t reproduce in the book because of the quality,” Moore said.
It is an image of Cricket walking with a friend and can only be found as a grainy newspaper photo.
“It is taken a few days before she died,” Moore said. “And she was just walking in El Paso with her friend. It [the photo] has the same outfit she was wearing the night she disappeared – jacket, skirt, this purse that went home with her. In the purse they found the receipt from the photographer.”
In the photo on the cover of the book, Moore said Cricket must have been 13. The new version of the book gives the girl an ethereal quality. But Cricket, with her chatty adventuresome nature was earthy and particular. She liked to drink and to have a good time. Some have said she was a prostitute but both Moore and Jones have doubts about that.
Cricket worked at several places downtown and was fired or let go from some of them because she would just be absent sometimes, Moore said.
“The first contact I had [working on the book] was a woman who worked with her at the downtown café,” Moore said. “She said [Cricket] was such a good worker, she was right on top of everything and she had a really good work ethic. So, when she was working, she was a good worker but her personal life interfered and if she needed to disappear, she disappeared for a while.”
Cricket’s murder has never been solved. Moore said she believes Apodaca knew and understood what happened that night and did what he could to protect people. It was the morning after Cricket’s disappearance that “everyone” left town, according to Moore, including politicians from Santa Fe and Apodaca himself who drove to Santa Fe with his girlfriend.
Moore and Jones say they visit Cricket’s grave at the Masonic Cemetery when they can and sometimes they find flowers there. Ironically, her grave is separated from Apodaca’s only by a small road running through the cemetery.