Gambler’s logic

By Ben Kuebrich

A star athlete, Hilton Crawford appeared many times in the South Park High School yearbook.

Episode six of the true-crime podcast Ransom: Position of Trust, dives deep into Hilton Crawford’s past to try to understand who he was and what led him to kidnap Mckay Everett. Ultimately, that exploration leads us to why McKay‘s mother, Paulette Everett, has suspicions about an additional accomplice to the crime.

Hilton Crawford was born in Beaumont, Texas — a blue-collar city an hour east of Houston — in 1939.

Beaumont, Texas was the site of Texas’s first real oil boom in 1901. Photo of the Lucas Gusher at Spindletop Hill, Beaumont, Texas. Photo credit John Trost.

Not much is known about Hilton’s early childhood, but he described it to author Tannie Shannon as typical. Tannie spent years interviewing Hilton, and wrote a book about him, Seed of Villainy, in 2007.

“He had, as best I know, a perfectly normal, completely happy childhood,” said Tannie. “Played sports in school. Was very popular.”

Six feet tall, Hilton particularly excelled in Basketball. “He was a hero in high school,” said Hilton’s classmate, Paul Anderson. “He was a jock. He was one of those four-letter athletes. You know, he was popular.”

A South Park High School yearbook photo shows Hilton Crawford and his future wife Connie, both as homecoming royalty. The yearbook also documents Basketball coach Bill Tipton, giving Hilton’s date Carol Byrd a “congratulating kiss.”

Anderson said that Hilton never got into trouble at school or gave off any signals of the trouble to come. “Back in those days we really didn’t look for red flags,” said Anderson. “It was pretty much what you see is what you get era.”

Hilton and Connie

Hilton met his future wife Connie in high school, though they didn’t date until years later. Connie was a cheerleader, a couple of years younger than him. She’d transferred from the local Catholic school and was the daughter of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store.

After graduating high school in 1957, Hilton went to the local junior college Lamar Tech, where he continued playing basketball. But at the college level, Hilton was no longer a star player.

“He wasn’t as well known and didn’t have the same people cheering for him,” said Tannie. “So it didn’t really mean as much.”

Hilton dropped out of college and joined the Marines. After serving active duty for 6-months, he switched into the reserves and ended up going back to college. That was the point where he got back in touch with Connie and asked her out.

“After the first date, they were pretty much a couple from then on,” said Tannie Shannon.

Early into dating, Connie’s father was diagnosed with cancer, and he asked Hilton to convert to Catholicism and marry her.

Tannie Shannon recorded an interview with Hilton where he tells that story:

Hilton Joins Law Enforcement

Hilton and Connie married in 1962. At the time, Hilton Crawford worked the night shift at the Beaumont Police Department while going to college during the day, though he never finished his degree.

The Beaumont police had come under scrutiny after the 1958 shooting of Jerome Giles in broad daylight. An investigation uncovered that mobsters had murdered Giles in a dispute over territory for illegal gambling and that the Chief of Police James H. Mulligan had been receiving bribes to look the other way. Ultimately, the chief and one of his head detectives were fired. But, despite the reforms, some level of police corruption was still tolerated by the time Hilton Crawford joined the force.

“He was introduced to some things that probably would not be allowed today,” said Tannie Shannon.

Hilton told Tannie Shannon that it was commonplace for merchants to give away free products to policemen, so that their stores would remain on officer’s patrol routes, and so they stayed in the good grace of the police.

Tannie, who previously managed 7-Eleven convenience stores, remembers that practice.

“When I was in the convenience store business if a police officer came in uniform, they didn’t pay for anything,” said Tannie. “Retail businesses are pleased to see uniformed officers coming and going. It helps prevent crime.”

Police Misconduct

But Hilton Crawford’s indiscretions as a police officer extended far beyond handouts from stores, and they reveal a pattern of violence and lying to cover up criminal acts that goes back as far as his early twenties.

A police report shows on September 14th, 1962, Hilton Crawford pushed a black man suspected of drunk driving into a muddy ditch and knocked him out, beat his ribs with a nightstick “just hard enough to wake him,” but when it failed to wake him, and decided to fire his weapon “to get him out of the ditch without us getting wet.”

The documents also show how Hilton initially lied about what happened and encouraged his partner to do the same.

Five days later, Police Chief Bauer indefinitely suspended Hilton Crawford from the police for using “force or violence against any person except when permitted to do so under the violation of the law,” when he pushed the suspect into the ditch.

Hilton clearly abused his power as a police officer, and his actions show he was unfit for that kind of responsibility.

But Hilton appealed his indefinite suspension, and two weeks later a hearing was held at city hall.

For three-and-a-half hours Hilton brought forth character witnesses who spoke of his involvement with youth, the church, and the community.

The arguments appear to have worked because the Civil Service Commission reduced Crawford’s suspension from indefinite to a mere four months. Hilton returned to the department and continued working there for three more years.

In 1966 Hilton left the police department and joined the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. He started as a jailer but quickly rose to Captain of the Warrants Division.

Hilton Begins Gambling

Hilton grew in prominence within Beaumont and befriended a group of local business owners, who loved to golf, bet on sports, and go on trips together to Vegas.

“He was going on, on junkets,” said Tannie Shannon. “Where one person takes a group of people out to a casino and everything’s paid for.”

On these junkets, Hilton only had to pay for airfare and gambling. The rooms and other expenses were covered, and this appears to be when Hilton first developed a taste for gambling and extravagance.

“It does make people feel special when they get treated like royalty,” said Tannie Shannon.

And Hilton found that he had something to offer in return.

On these trips to Vegas, Hilton met casino managers, who took note of the fact that he worked for a sheriff’s department near Houston.

“He began making collection calls for some of the casinos in Las Vegas when people from the local area would write hot checks,” said Tannie Shannon. “And then in return they put him on their VIP list.”

“It made him feel important. It made him feel respected and so forth. And that’s kind of what his job in law enforcement did as well. He likes to feel important,” said Tannie Shannon.

In Vegas, and among his businessman friends, Hilton became known as “The Sheriff.” And it appears Hilton enjoyed this nickname, because in 1975, after 9 years in the sheriff’s department, Hilton quit. He no longer wanted to work for the sheriff — Hilton Crawford wanted to be the sheriff.

Hilton Crawford’s Campaign Poster when he ran for Sheriff of Jefferson County in the 1976 Democratic primary. Because there

A Contentious Sheriff’s Campaign

In April, 1976, at age 37, Hilton Crawford, announced he was going to run for Sheriff against his former boss, Dick Culbertson. Hilton was quoted in a newspaper saying that high levels of turnover showed the department was being mismanaged.

“We’ve seen a steady decline in quality of law enforcement due to the lack of effective leadership at the top,” said Hilton. “Oddly enough, our present Sheriff seems content to plod along with a crippled department.”

Culbertson disputed Hilton’s claims about low morale, saying that the turnover rate was in line with national averages and that he observed “high morale and esprit de corps.”

Accusations Escalate

In a later article in the Port Arthur News, Hilton Crawford accused Culbertson of spreading rumors alleging that Hilton’s campaign was supported by organized crime. In retaliation, Hilton released a letter outlining corruption that had allegedly occurred under Culbertson’s watch.

These accusations included receiving bribes from Texaco, shutting down an investigation into a drug dealer who was the son of a law enforcement officer, and an allegation of blackmail and impropriety at the county jail.

Again Culbertson disputed the allegations, saying he was appalled at how Hilton was running his campaign.

The Port Arthur News did not substantiate the accusations on either side.

An article in the Port Arthur News later that month described a town hall meeting, where “the county sheriff race dominated the evening and overshadowed every other county race.” During the question and answer session, Hilton was asked a question about his suspension from the Beaumont Police – the incident where he pushed a man down into a pit, knocked him out, and shot his gun to wake him up.

“I used poor judgment then, but I have come a long way since that incident.” Hilton was quoted as saying, “I feel I have overcome this.”

Hilton’s Debt

At the town hall, Hilton was also asked about the financing of his campaign. He responded that in addition to donations, he’d taken out 3 loans of his own that totaled around $8,000 – equivalent in today’s dollars to over $42,000.

But it appears that investment was not enough. Because on May 1st, 1976 Hilton Crawford lost the primary. And the personal loans he’d taken out to finance his campaign may have been the start of his struggles with debt that would continue over the next 20 years.

Signs of Addiction

As Hilton continued forward through life, he kept gambling, and money around him seemed to keep disappearing.

“When I look back on Hilton,” said friend Sam Petro, “I was as dumb as a rock. I mean, I saw him over gambling when I saw him gambling money he didn’t have.”

In retrospect, there were a lot of red flags that Hilton had become addicted to gambling, Petro said.

“If I had a serious thought about it at the time I would have done something,” said Petro. “I would have had serious conversations. I would have taken him to a psychiatrist.”

But Petro didn’t confront Hilton about his excessive gambling, and as Hilton’s debt got worse, he turned to crime to finance his gambling addiction.

“Stealing $300,000 from the security company,” said Petro. “I knew the deal in Hawaii with the credit card. I knew the deal with the insurance company defrauding them,” said Petro.

But Petro never imagined how low Hilton would sink.

“If I would have put all of this stuff together, I would I would have done something,” said Petro. “And McKay would still be alive.”

To hear more about Hilton’s crimes, his descent into addiction, and why Paulette suspects someone else could have stopped McKay’s kidnapping, listen to Ransom Episode 6: Gambler’s Logic:


Ransom: Position of Trust is a nine-part true crime podcast from KSL Podcasts.
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