Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Anthony R. Martin-Trigona and the Champaign Carny Killing

THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO, I heard one of the funniest lines in a long career of writing about other peoples' troubles. It was uttered on the steps of a county courthouse by a lawyer who came to hear another brilliant law school graduate -- one denied an Illinois law license for an alleged shaky mental state -- accuse him of fixing a case.
The courthouse-steps press conference had been called by Anthony R. Martin Trigona, a brainy but bizarre local character. Among his targets that day were a Champaign County prosecutor and a defense attorney he maintained had conspired to assure a murderer was acquitted.
After Martin-Trigona wound down, the defense attorney, Robert Isham Auler, gathered the local press and said, "For the first time in my life I have sympathy for the Philistines in the Bible. We both were assailed by the jawbone of an ass."
The reason for this stroll down memory lane is that Anthony R. Martin-Trigona calls himself Andy Martin these days. That's the same back-of-the-pack Illinois U.S. Senate Republican primary candidate who ran a political ad on WBBM radio challenging an opponent to tell if he's gay.
He said that opponent owes an explanation for supporting the gay side in civil rights issues, anathema to ultra-conservatives like him.
He wasn't always so conservative, however.
Five years ago, he called himself pro-gay rights.
Both as Martin-Trigona and Martin period, he has run unsuccessfully for many political offices in Illinois, Florida and Connecticut, and twice for President of the United States.
When he held his 1977 press conference, he was, as now, running for the U.S. Senate, but as a Democrat.
He said then, "I stand for the people of this state and against the rich bankers and powerful Republican lawyers, and they are trying to destroy me before I can get to the Senate and destroy their corrupt way of life."
In those days, it seemed everybody was trying to destroy Martin-Trigona, according to the great man himself. Those people included Auler and me and just about anybody else whose name he could spell, and some he couldn't. He was always suing somebody.
The case he accused Auler and the others of fixing was the prosecution of the late Kistler "Sailor Bill" Killingsworth, a legendary Columbus, Ga. tattoo artist who came through Champaign County with a carnival, and pumped many bullets into a fellow carny while on a break.
It was a fascinating case, delving into the strange world of itinerant carnival workers, each with a weirder nickname than the last. I was then the Daily Illini crime/criminal courts reporter, as well as the local UPI stringer, and I remember the delight with which the UPI rewrite man accepted my calls.
"Oh man, it's the story with all the crazy names," he groaned one time.
Sailor Bill looked like a goner at the start of his trial for killing Jimmy "The Wop" Wilson. There were witnesses, stories of conflicts between the two men, a recovered ivory-handled murder weapon, and Killingsworth's long record as a guy who wasn't shy about mixing it up.
Auler dressed up Sailor Bill in high-collared shirts and long, tightly-buttoned sleeves to hide as many tattoos as possible. He did as complete a job as humanly possible attacking witnesses. But it was way too apparent that Killingsworth, 55, had done the shooting.
I called up Auler today to help refresh my memory of how he made that problem go away.
"Look, Sailor Bill shot this guy," the Urbana attorney said. "So I sent somebody to research the dead guy, and it turns out he's a real scumbag, a dangerous person."
It would be nice for Auler if the local officials who knew Wilson in Georgia would come up to Champaign County and testify why Killingsworth should be so afraid of him that he'd be justified in shooting him full of holes when confronted.
"There's no way we're going to testify for the defense," Auler said he was told.
But his investigator -- a convicted parking meter thief -- couldn't get a job anywhere in town but with Auler, and he wanted to make sure he kept it.
He found out that the local Georgia cops' worst problem was an outlaw motorcycle gang. So the Parking Meter Bandit romanced a female gang associate, and, amazingly, succeeded in finding out a lot about the bikers. He tipped the cops where evidence of drug sales and violent mayhem could be found. Local problem solved.
Back in Champaign County, I sat stunned as a Georgia prosecutor and a police lieutenant took the stand as Sailor Bill defense witnesses, testifying convincingly that anyone in their right mind would fear Wilson.
It was the first time I ever saw a killer jump up and leave a courtroom a free man. But I never thought the fix was in, because I saw the Georgia witnesses testify so convincingly. And anyone who read the stories in three local dailies the next day would have known it, too.
But Martin-Trigona had axes to grind in the courthouse before he ever heard of Sailor Bill. He was under siege by the local system for contempt charges, mostly stemming from insults hurled at judges trying to settle complaints from tenants of his run-down campustown apartment buildings.
The contempt cases went on for years, mainly because, it seemed, Martin-Trigona just didn't know how to apologize and move on from intemperate remarks like "I hope they are paying you well for this fixed case" and "Do I get a transcript of this hearing before it is doctored?"
Such unnecessary legal entanglements have followed him wherever he's gone. Everybody's a crook. Everybody's got something terrible to hide.
You may have noticed that I didn't mention the name of the candidate Martin challenged with the WBBM radio ad. If you don't know, you can find out easily enough. I don't care if the guy is gay or not, but I'm not going to be a part of the attack.
And don't think the attack has no substance. It does.
Tuesday, I received an e-mail from a far-right GOP group that, while disowning Martin, made sure I got a big pile of rumors to wade through. And they were making the almost identical points that Martin did.
And don't imagine that Martin is impotent. In a 1998 run for the U.S. Senate from Florida -- while a fugitive from justice on a local contempt charge -- he was the biggest vote-getter in Miami-Dade County and collected a third of the statewide vote.

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