The Fighters

Johnny Hernandez and Bobby Thomas
Johnny Hernandez and Bobby Thomas
Johnny Hernandez and Bobby Thomas

I have known and written about all manner of characters over the years.

One of the most notorious was Arthur Harry (Bunny) Eckert, the local pimp and pill head known for killing numerous other denizens of San Antonio’s darker side of society.

Bunny disappeared March 2, 1986, from the Eckert home on Overhill Drive in San Antonio. On that same night, someone killed Bunny’s mother, Lela Mae Eckert. Bunny’s body has never been located. Mrs. Eckert was found in the home with her throat cut.

I think I know who killed Bunny and Ms. Eckert, but no proof of either killing has ever been uncovered. I have heard the two killings were done by two men. The motive was bragging rights for Eckert’s death.

Bunny is an underground legend now, reportedly sleeping with concrete boots in the darkest and deepest part of Canyon Lake in Comal County. Another story has Eckert’s killers disposing of his body with acid.

I was writing for the Express and News when Eckert killed George Gabitch and Champ Carter, both gamblers well known to San Antonio police. I also covered a court hearing for Eckert after he shot gunned to death two black soldiers in an East San Antonio nightclub called the Sat-El-Lite. They were Pfc. Steven Parker, 25, and Pfc. Alonzo Williams, 28.

Eckert was ostensibly defending the honor of a redheaded bartender named Judy Jones when he blasted the two hapless Sat-El-Lite Club victims.

I was in the courtroom for that hearing, and I distinctly recall the exchange between Judy Jones and the prosecuting attorney.

“You saw Bunny Eckert kill the two men,” the prosecutor said to Judy Jones.

“Yes I did,” replied Miss Jones.

“And then what did you say, Miss Jones? What did you say to Bunny Eckert?”

I never forgot her answer:

“Wow, Bunny, you really got ‘em!”

Renown criminal lawyer Fred Semaan represented Bunny in these and numerous other killings, gaining acquittals or dismissals through a variety of nebulous legal defense ploys.

I heard that Eckert killed 14 men, but I never got reliable statistics. The San Antonio Police Department Historical Society records have him down for more than 50 arrests and little jail time. In my first book, The Best of Sam Kindrick, I have Bunny on record for 7 arrests for unlawfully carrying a weapon, 25 arrests for crap shooting, 3 arrests for making threats, 2 assault to murder charges, 6 for possession of drugs, and a murder charge in the killing of gambler George Gabitch.

Testimony showed that Gabitch had been chasing Eckert around a house with a pistol when Bunny gained enough lead to grab his trusty shotgun from his parked car. The blunderbuss roared and George fell dead. I’m not sure, but I believe Eckert killed Champ Carter in a card game dispute.

A district judge told me once that Eckert escaped murder convictions simply because most of the people he killed were so low on the social pole that nobody really cared.

Bunny left San Antonio to spend a couple of years in New Orleans, working gaming tables for mafia boss Carlos Marcello. He returned to San Antonio, where he got into the methamphetamine business, an occupation that netted him at least two prison sentences.

Eckert was born February 14, 1933, Valentine’s Day. When I noted in my daily newspaper column that Eckert was born on the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago, Bunny called me at the Express News city room to lodge his reasonable complaint.

“Hey, man, what the hell is going on? My mother reads your column religiously, and neither of us can be blamed for me being born on the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Give me a break.”

Eckert raced quarter horses, and his friends would attest to his loyalty and generosity.

After being sentenced to federal prison a second time on drug charges, Eckert was allowed to check himself into La Tuna near El Paso after completing a series of medical procedures to remove his acne scars.

He told the feds he would be prompt to start serving his sentence, and they granted him the extra time.

I wrote about it at the time, noting that Eckert said what he meant and meant what he said.

I know he liked me. Knowing my penchant at the time for turquoise and silver jewelry, Bunny sent me a silver and turquoise belt buckle with a bear claw inlaid between the stones. I still have it at this writing. He had one of his working girls deliver the buckle.

Ron Houston was a top DJ on KTSA Radio during most of Bunny Eckert’s run as San Antonio’s most notorious bad boy. Houston was an unapologetic friend of Eckert’s, and he remained Bunny’s friend until Eckert’s presumed murder. When Houston and I were working a morning drive show on KEXL FM, Houston always dedicated a Willie Nelson or Charlie Daniels song to Bunny Eckert on Valentine’s Day.

Houston told me that Eckert had cleaned up his act and was devoting most of his time to the racehorses when he was killed.

The lineup of friends and less than ordinary characters who have crossed my journalistic radar seems endless upon reflection. They range from gamblers to preachers, from madams to lawyers, from outlaws to musicians, and they include other strange, frightening, and beautiful people.

I was fairly new to San Antonio when I met Al Juergens, a rugged boxer and self-taught acrobat who waged and won more fights in saloons than he did in the ring. My first encounter with Juergens was at San Antonio’s old Five Points Cafe, a late-night and early morning hangout for sports figures, newspaper people, and late-night drinkers.

I was introduced to Juergens by Dan Cook, sports editor of the San Antonio Evening News at that time, and the three of us were sitting at a table when two cops entered the restaurant and ordered Juergens to stand up.

“It wasn’t me,” Al protested. “I have been right here sitting with these newspaper reporters, minding my own business and waiting for breakfast.”

I noticed that Juergens had skinned knuckles on his left hand, but none of us said anything to the cops. We learned later that someone had knocked a truck driver cold during an altercation in the parking lot. The police were all too familiar with Juergens.

The ring wars between Al Juergens and a double-tough Mexican fighter by the name of Santiago Gutierrez distinguished the colorful Juergens among other fighters. His major weapon was an explosive left hook that left most of his opponents down and senseless on the ring canvas. Juergens had curly black hair, thick eyebrows crisscrossed by scar tissue, and a nose that had been rearranged multiple times. Juergens had ropy arm and leg muscles and a rub board belly. The fighter displayed no discernible fear. He was a classic brawler who would take two punches to land one of his own, and I don’t think Juergens was ever knocked out in the ring.

No matter how the fight ended, whether it be knockout or referee decision, Al Juergens performed his signature back flip in the center of the ring, followed by a simulated “bird” for his many detractors. Juergens couldn’t flip the finger with boxing gloves on both hands, but he got the message across by jamming one fist high into the air with vigorous pumping motions that were painfully unmistakable. Fuck you, and you, and you, and you…while the boos were all but deafening.

In San Antonio, most of the fighters were of the Mexican-American persuasion, and the vast majority of fight fans who attended the boxing matches in San Antonio’s old Municipal Auditorium were Hispanics. They didn’t like Al Juergens, and the acrimony was mutual. Al didn’t like his brown-skinned opponents.

A natural welterweight, Al was fighting out of his weight class in his battles with the larger Gutierrez, a true middleweight. There were no more Texas welterweight class fighters left that Juergens hadn’t already whipped.

Juergens and the larger Gutirrez had several fights, the number I cannot recall. Juergens may have won one of them. I know they fought to a draw at least once. But Gutierrez won more of the battles on points. Neither Al Juergens nor Santiago Gutierrez ever scored a knockout over the other. They literally fought to a bloody standstill every time.

Just days before the first time I ever saw Juergens in the ring, I can distinctly remember the newspaper headline: Fighter jailed for theft of vitamin pills.

Al had dropped a bottle of vitamin pills into his coat pocket while visiting the Walgreens on Houston Street. A store clerk summoned a beat policeman who promptly arrested the fighter.

Juergens posted bond after a petty theft charge which was eventually dismissed when Al successfully argued that he had innocently dropped the pill bottle into his pocket. Al said he had other merchandise in his arms at the time, and simply forgot the pills in his pocket when he was checking out at the drug store cash register.

The judge believed him and the theft charges were dropped, but not before the newspaper headlines broke the day before Juergens was to fight at the auditorium.

This was the first time I ever saw Al fight. I don’t recall the name of his Mexican-American opponent, but I remember Juergens winning by a knockout. I attended the fight with sports editor Dan Cook, and what I remember with clarity was the crowd chanting something in unison I couldn’t understand.

“What are they saying?” I yelled at Cook.

The chant was a roar.

“They are saying vitamin, vitamin, vitamin,” Cook said.

Those San Antonio fight crowds loved to hate Al Juergens, and he wasn’t about to disappoint them. After what I always referred to as the vitamin fight, Juergens performed his customary back flip in the center of the ring and then shot his boxing glove “bird” to the derisive crowd.

I was both amazed and impressed, and I watched every San Antonio fight Al Juergens had from that day forward. That nobody ever killed him remains a mystery to this day.

For reasons known only unto him, Al Juergns moved from San Antonio to Belleville, Illinois, and it was years later before I was to hear from him again. I was working an air shift on KEXL FM radio when — out of the blue — Juergens called from Illinois on the telephone. He was excited.

“Man, am I glad that I found you,” he said. “I am coming back to San Antonio with my new invention that is going to make us both millionaires. I will have it with me the next time I see you. Believe it or not, but I have invented a device that will enable a gasoline engine car to run on water. I know it sounds crazy but it works. I thought of you when I came up with the invention. You can help me promote it. A water powered car. We are going to get rich.”

That was the last time I heard a word from Juergens. And I never saw him again.

I always wondered if perhaps Santiago Gutierrez might have hit Al in the head one time too many. I have hoped not. Those back flips and boxing glove “birds” are among my most cherished memories. Vitamin, vitamin, vitamin…There was only one Al Juergens.

Unlike Al Juergens, Bobby (Kid Death) Thomas was no skilled ring warrior, but he was a seemingly indestructible character whose relatively brief and spotty boxing ring career followed survival episodes which included second and third degree burns over 65 percent of his body in a drag racing fuel explosion; broken neck, and both arms, and one leg in a fall from a second story roof which bordered a 60-foot canyon; and a point-blank .357 magnum gunshot to the gut that resulted in surgeons removing part of his pancreas, spleen, and all of one lung.

I was there for most of it. Bobby was my friend. He always called me “Sambo.”

Bobby was a drag car builder and racer in his younger days, but he can best be defined as an unrepentant scam artist with a vivid, imagination.

When I first encountered Bobby Thomas he was selling what he purported to be baby polar bear skins. The juvenile “polar bear” hides, priced at $200 apiece, were the size of sheep skins because that is exactly what they were. Bobby was hawking them in San Antonio nightclub parking lots. I don’t know where he got the sheep skins.

Thomas discovered that he could run an ordinary sheep skin through the neighborhood laundromat’s deep cleansing and high-temperature drying processes with amazing results. The lanolin-free sheep hides came out as snow white and fluffy as any baby bear that ever came frolicking out of the land of the midnight sun.

I don’t know how many of the bogus bear hides Bobby managed to sell. He wouldn’t say when I asked him about it.

The patchwork of burn scars that were visible on Thomas’s arms and neck did little to detract from his movie star looks. He looked good even when he lay half dead on a hospital gurney.

Bobby’s older brother Roy Thomas recalled the nitromethane explosion that left the younger Thomas minus one ear and with second and third degree burns over 65 percent of his body. Roy and Bobby were operating a drag race shop at the time — Thomas Brothers Perfection Enterprises on San Antonio’s Basse Road — but the racing fuel mishap happened in their mother’s front yard. The can with highly sensitive nitromethane got bumped and up it blew.

“Bobby saw it coming,” Roy told me. “He stepped in to shield two of our little nieces at the time. They were 4 and 5 years old. The kids were unhurt but Bobby was engulfed in flames. One of his ears was burned completely off.”

The fire was before I met Bobby Thomas, but I knew him well when he fell from a huge two-story roof and to the bottom of a 60-foot canyon in the Bulverde area where we both lived at the time.

Bobby was either leasing the house or using it with permission of the owner, I was never sure which. I do know that he was repairing wind damage on the roof when it started raining, causing him to slip on the wet aluminum roof and plunge from the house top to the canyon floor far below.

After a relatively short hospital stay, Thomas was released with a metal hoop contraption bolted to his vertebrae and completely encircling his head. He looked like a Star Wars nightmare.

I saw the doctor’s official report. Bobby Thomas suffered a fractured neck, fractured right wrist, fractured left elbow, fractured right knee, and two broken ribs.

Bobby’s entrance into the world of professional boxing came through trainer and boxing manager Tony Ayala. The father of an entire stable of fighters that included world featherweight contender Mike Ayala, Sammy Ayala, and Tony Ayala (Little Tony) Jr., Big Tony, as he was known, took a fancy to Bobby Thomas. The elder Ayala took Thomas into his stable of fighters, carefully selecting opponents he knew Bobby could beat.

“It wasn’t that Bobby had great potential as a fighter,” Tony Jr., told me. “The old man liked him because he was tough, more than a little bit crazy, and an Anglo who could expand on the Ayala Mexican family fan base.”

Big Tony could pick the under-card opponents for an Ayala fight until Mike Ayala landed a world title fight with featherweight world champion Danny (Little Red) Lopez, one of the greatest boxers to hold the world title in that weight division.

Bobby wanted to fight on the undercard against Dennis Haggerty, a fighter from the Lopez camp. Big Tony was against it. He knew nothing about Haggerty but suspected he might be formidable as he was part of the Danny Lopez package. Bobby all but begged Ayala to put him on the card, a decision Big Tony finally made with much trepidation.

I was there for the title fight. It was April 10, 1979, and the old HemisFair Arena was packed to the scuppers for what Ring Magazine later dubbed one of the greatest fights of all time.

Mike Ayala put up a fight for the ages, falling in the 15th round to a thunderous Lopez knockout right. When Mike finally hit the canvas most of the under card had been forgotten, including Dennis Haggerty’s defeat of Bobby Thomas, a knockout after 45 seconds of the first round which left Bobby with a broken jaw.

I asked Bobby about the ignominious knockout and his answer was vintage Thomas: “It was no knockout, Sambo. I have never been knocked out. Knocked stupid but never out.”

Bobby was to appear on a few more Ayala fight under cards, but the fistic fiasco which was to garner the most attention unfolded in a circus tent on the fairgrounds at Fredericksburg, Texas where actor Guich Koock hosted what he called The Luckenbach World’s Fair at Fredericksburg. This was a follow up to the original Luckenbach World’s Fair which was hatched by Koock and Hondo Crouch, who were originally co-owners of Luckenbach.

Entertainment for the Fredericksburg outing included a motorcycle daredevil who called himself Even Steven, and what was to become known as The Great World’s Fight, a dubious appellation I hung on a contest of brainless brawn between Bobby Thomas and martial arts participant and instructor Johnny Hernandez.

There was bad blood between Thomas and Hernandez from the outset, probably the result of some long-forgotten barroom imbroglio. It was during the buildup for The Great World’s Fight that Bobby crowned himself “Kid Death,” a misnomer if there ever was one. “Sambo,” Thomas told me before the opening bell, “you are getting ready to see Kid Death kill a big Mex.”

Nobody killed anybody, and the nearest we got to the great beyond under that circus tent was from spectators who all but laughed themselves to death before the Great World’s Fight came to a merciful end.

It was billed as a battle to the end, when one of the fighters was unable to continue. Referee was Jimmy Parks, an attorney and onetime amateur boxer whose sole duty was declaring a winner.

Hernandez, who outweighed Thomas by a good 50 pounds, showed up with his fists heavily taped and with objects of unknown identity under the tape. Thomas was wearing weird-looking work gloves that bulged with what we were to later learn was a form of powdered lead.

Thomas and Hernandez flailed away, neither landing a decent punch. Bobby couldn’t keep up his guard, probably because his lead-weighted gloves were too heavy for him to hold up. The heavier Hernandez finally prevailed when the self-anointed Kid Death could no longer muster enough wind to stand upright on his feet.

Referee Parks called it for Hernandez.

Bobby’s response to this one was predictable.

“Sambo, this one will be finally decided when I catch him on the street.”

The caper that almost cost Bobby Thomas his life came outside of a San Antonio discotheque known as Sugar Daddy’s.

Trouble had been brewing for some time between Thomas and Ernie Hoessley, owner of Sugar Daddy’s and other nightclub establishments. I don’t recall Bobby’s take on the beef, but my friend Joe Cardenas said Thomas had threatened Hoessley in some sort of protection racket attempt.

Bobby took a .357 Magnum slug to his gut while approaching the front door of the nightclub on a late morning. The word quickly spread that Ernie Hoessley had shot Bobby Thomas, but that is not what happened. Bobby was shot by a Hoessley lieutenant and Sugar Daddy’s door man we all knew only as Little Rudy. The last name slipped my mind, but I recall Little Rudy as a congenial sort who most of the disco customers liked.

I was in my office on Broadway the morning Thomas was shot. It was only about a half mile to the Baptist Hospital emergency room where he was rushed. I don’t recall who called me, but I can distinctly recall what transpired that morning.

When I walked into the hospital emergency room, nobody tried to stop me. Bobby was on a gurney, bathed in his own blood and as white as one of his bleached “polar bear” skins.

Somehow, he recognized me.

“Sambo, come closer.”

His lips were blue. His eyes were sunken. His voice was a raspy whisper, but I will never forget the exact words that escaped his mouth.

“Sambo, they dry-gulched me.”

Those were his exact words. I have never forgotten those words or the last ones he uttered before I left that emergency room.

“Sambo, tell Ernie that vengeance is mine.”

Thankfully for all concerned, Thomas never followed up on the threat. The years slipped by and the next time I saw Bobby was many years later outside of The Cove nightclub on Cypress Street.

“Sambo,” Bobby said. “My kidneys are playing out and I know I won’t be around much longer. I was always glad to have you for a friend.”

Bobby’s kidneys quit on March 28, 2015. He died in his mother’s apartment at the age of 68.