Although it has been more than 35 years, June 19, 1982, is a day that many in Waco will not forget.
Frank Gentsch, a young patrol officer at the time, was almost killed that day and still has a bullet lodged near his kidney.
W. Patrick Swanton, who went to the police academy with Gentsch, was also a new officer and vividly remembers the feelings he experienced hearing on the radio that Gentsch and a reserve officer had been shot.
For former longtime prosecutor Crawford Long, the attempted capital murder case was his first big trial since going to work for the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. He still remembers the witnesses and the arguments he made to the jury.
Long can recall the look on a juror’s face as she apologized for letting him down on behalf of the jury, which gave Frederick Joseph Watkins 75 years in prison, not the life term Long had asked them for.
Now all these years later and despite protests from police officers’ groups and others, Watkins, now 61, will walk out of the Allred prison unit in Wichita Falls on Friday and be paroled to a Travis County halfway house.
Watkins will remain under mandatory supervision until 2057 and initially will be placed by parole officials in the Super-Intensive Supervision Program. He will wear a GPS ankle monitor to track his movements and, at Gentsch’s request, will be prohibited from entering McLennan County.
“My concern is for the safety of all our law enforcement officers and general public that may come into contact with this offender,” said Gentsch, who has risen through the Waco Police Department ranks to assistant chief. “He is violent enough to pull a firearm without hesitation and shoot an armed, uniformed police officer. He did this within seconds of the attempt to simply speak with him.
“Frederick Watkins is an offender who has never shown any remorse for his action and who time and time again was denied parole to include his last hearing. The Board of Pardons and Paroles has voted multiple times to not release him,” Gentsch said in a statement, declining additional comment.
Gentsch was 20 and fresh out of the academy when Watkins shot him with a .22 caliber pistol in the side and in the arm. He underwent three major operations and returned to the patrol division in January 1983 after a long recovery.
Terry Linebaugh, 23, had joined the Waco police reserves six months earlier. Watkins shot Linebaugh in an exchange of gunfire with officers after Watkins ran into an abandoned downtown bar.
Swanton, now a sergeant and Waco police spokesman, said the events of that day are as clear to him now as they were 35 years ago. He was working the beat next to Gentsch when Gentsch was shot.
“There is nothing that strikes fear in officers’ hearts more than hearing your beat partner on the radio saying he was shot,” Swanton said. “It is an horrific experience for anybody to go through, much less an officer who is the victim in the case, like Frank was.
“Frank will have issues on that for the rest of his life. We can only hope the guy who shot him has been rehabilitated. But we know all too many times, people get out of prison and go right back to the life of crime they led before they went to prison. Unfortunately, the reality of it is someone who tried to kill an officer is getting paroled and will be back out on the streets.”
Gentsch had a Baylor University student riding along on patrol with him that day when Gentsch spotted a man behind the former bus station on Columbus Avenue. It was the middle of June, a very hot day and the man was wearing an overcoat. Things just didn’t seem right to the young officer, so he asked the man for identification and what he was doing there.
Watkins started walking fast. Gentsch persisted, ordering him to stop. Watkins turned abruptly and fired two shots, according to reports from the time. Gentsch called for help, yelling that he had been shot.
As reinforcements arrived, Watkins ran through an alley and into an old vacant bar behind the former Raleigh Hotel, where he exchanged gunfire with officers.
Linebaugh was shot in the leg when he left cover to retrieve a shotgun from a police car, Swanton said. Watkins finally surrendered after about 20 minutes when police used tear gas to force him from the building.
Swanton remembers driving him to the old city jail on North Fourth Street, and Watkins was still wearing the trench coat with multiple rounds of ammunition in his pockets.
“Obviously, I think we have the best legal and justice system in the entire world, without a doubt. Unfortunately, there are mean people out there who do bad things,” Swanton said. “As a law enforcement agency, and myself as a law enforcement officer, my concern is that anytime somebody would attempt to kill a police officer, who they know is there to protect citizens and is an armed individual, that person’s potential for doing harm toward an unarmed citizen is tremendous. So we always worry about people of that caliber.”
At first, Watkins claimed he was mentally incompetent to stand trial, that he didn’t know right from wrong. A jury rejected that claim, and Watkins went to trial, with Long representing the state.
Long started with the DA’s office in 1978 and had not tried many big cases. He went on to prosecute eight capital murder cases and won eight death penalties before his retirement in 2010, including those of serial killer Kenneth Allen McDuff, Gerald Wayne Tigner, Michael Dewayne Johnson, Billie Wayne Coble, Clydell Coleman and Carroll Joe Parr.
“I felt it was a very important case because a police officer had been shot and nearly killed,” Long said. “Obviously, they gave the case to somebody who wasn’t one of the top prosecutors in the office. The only pressure I felt was a police officer had been shot and nearly killed and this was a very dangerous person who needed to be convicted, and in all probability, if he was back out of the streets he might kill somebody else.”
Long said he told the jury Gentsch should be commended for his courage and his struggle, despite almost being killed, to get back to a job, where, unlike many others, officers’ lives can be placed in jeopardy on a daily basis.
“I closed my jury argument by saying that the evidence clearly shows he is guilty, but if you find him not-guilty, I will live with your verdict. If you find him not-guilty, the Waco Police Department will live with your verdict. Frank Gentsch will live with your verdict. God will live with your verdict. But I hope we don’t open the paper some day and find out that someone died with your verdict,” Long said.