I could tell the call was bad news. Dad opened the hall closet and reached for his gun and jacket.
My father, San Antonio police detective Walter “Corky” Dennis, answered the phone at our house about 10 p.m. on a cold snowy January 10th, 1973–my senior year at McCollum High School.
“Go get your coat, Son. A friend of mine has been shot on duty and we are going to go help find the son of a bitch that did it.”
Dad made a call to find out more information then told me what happened as we drove off.
“George Jacobs was shot and they are taking him to the South East Baptist Hospital,” he explained. “We’re going there to see if we need to give blood and help any way we can.”
Hands in His Pockets
Rookie patrolman David Matheson first worked the West Side of San Antonio after his graduation from the Police Academy in 1972.
“After about nine months they transferred me to the South East side,” Matheson recalled. On his first day there, officer George Jacobs contacted him to have coffee at a Jim’s Frontier Coffee Shop at Goliad Road and Lasses.
“I was impressed,” Matheson remembered years later. “The most important things I gleaned from our conversation was that George was a good man, caring and compassionate.”
“The other thing George said was NEVER talk to anybody with his hands in his pockets. NEVER talk to anybody with his hands in his pockets….I remembered his voice as I repeated that my whole career.”
Officer Matheson, years later, explained what occurred at the hospital emergency room.
“There were many officers there and we split up into groups of about six and panned out to search for two brothers,” Matheson said.
Upon hearing the plan, knowing there was not much we could do for Officer Jacobs there, Dad and I drove six miles west on Southcross Blvd to help in the search for two suspects who were brothers.
Most of the officers searching had been preparing to end their shifts around 10:15 when the dispatcher announced on their radios: “OFFICER DOWN AT RIGSBY AND CLARK.”
Police Sargeant Doyle Soden met up with Dad and me in the parking lot of the Fina Sunglo convenience store located at 1502 Clark Avenue where the shooting investigation was in progress.
“The store clerk told us he had just been robbed when George drove up about the same time not even knowing what was going on,” Soden explained. “The guy was already calling the robbery in to dispatch when George drove up. He was probably wondering why the bastards were running out of an ice house on a freezing night.”
According to witness testimony, forensics, and later confessions, one of the robbers took a shot at Jacobs and missed. The second shot struck the officer in the left temple. He fell in the street. A moment later a passerby found him and ran into the convenience store to notify the clerk who was already on the phone talking with the police dispatcher.
Immediately an urgent message was dispatched to all officers. They were asked to answer back with their assigned numbers.
“5-5 here,” and so on. All working officers in the district of the shooting were accounted for–except George Jacobs.
“I knew it was him,” Soden said later. “I knew it was going to be bad.”
“OFFICER DOWN AT RIGSBY AND CLARK…OFFICER SHOT,” was immediately voiced to all units.
Officers Ed Kelly and Ted Mangold were the first to arrive at the scene. Jacobs was alive, but the injury was gruesome. An ambulance transported Jacobs to the hospital.
“There was no advanced life support then, just load and go,” explained Matheson. Reflecting in 2015, the retired officer noted they all knew Jacobs was gone, but they kept him “alive for 5 days on a respirator until that night on the 14th when (his) family ended the suffering.”
On the drive back home, just before sun up on January 11, my father explained to me that veteran Detective Frank Castillon was leading the investigation.
“We’ll track him down for sure,” Dad said. “We will ALL be on this case to make sure we get him.”
My father was right. Detectives and police officers worked diligently gathering evidence, but most importantly “doing hardline police work,” he described later.
“All of us went to our sources citywide, but especially on the east and southeast side,” he said. “Criminals, dope addicts and dealers, bartenders, snitches…we talked to everyone and put in extreme pressure. It scared the hell out of everyone enough to ask around and kick the intensity into high gear.”
Originally, the night of the shooting, “it was bogus info we got,” said Matheson. “It was not the French Brothers who robbed the store and shot George.”
Each day after school, I would come home to ask my father about any updates on officer Jacobs and the case. He looked weary and I knew he had been working hard, as well as the entire force, to find the robbers. I recall one evening particularly. Before dinner, we bowed our heads and prayed for Jacobs, his family and police officers everywhere.
“I was working the dispatcher’s office on Sunday, Jan. 14, 1973, when Sgt. Gonzalves came into the dispatch booth and gave me a note,” Matheson noted. It read “George had passed on. It was with great sadness that I read the note. It was approximately one hour later that Johnny Leroy Harris walked in the front door of the Police Dept and told the Sargeant that he was the individual who shot “that officer” the other night.”
Sargeant Soden, also my father’s best friend on the police force, called my Dad and they went to headquarters downtown to see who turned themselves in. It was a known drug addict, 26-year-old Johnny Leroy Harris.
Harris had been called in by police Captain Bill Weilberger on robbery charges. The legendary captain read him his rights and was able to work with Detective Castillon on the murder.
On August 15, 2015, Officer Jacobs’ daughter Michelle, responded to those who wrote on a legacy website about her father.
“After so many years it’s still very hard,” she wrote. “I’d like to thank everyone for such kind words. What a difference it makes to know my Daddy is still thought of! Not one day goes by that I don’t think about him and miss him, sometimes I don’t think the pain will go away.”
“An update on Johnny Leroy Harris- After many years of trying to meet with him, we were able to get a mediation granted. Along with my brother Vince, my daughter Heather, mother and myself we were able to meet face to face”
“My brother and I talked to him and asked many questions as my mother and daughter were pretty quiet,” Michelle continued. “I know for a fact, as I did that day, that this man looked us in the eyes and blatantly lied to us about what took place that night, I didn’t care. I knew better and so does God!”
“…Thank you all for your continued support and God Bless our law enforcement, they are faced with an uncertain and cruel world even more so today,” Michelle ended her note.
Hands In Pockets
A week or so after the officer’s death, I was sitting in Bud Jones Restaurant on the Southside, listening as my father and several other policemen talked about the recent death of President Lyndon B. Johnson while in route to Brooks Medical Center in San Antonio. But primarily, they discussed the murder of George Jacobs.
“We have some hard nose homicide detectives,” one of the off duty officers and also a neighbor, Russell Spannagel said. “I will never forget when they arrested Johnny Harris. He said they were out of heroin and needed more. So they robbed the store. George didn’t even know when he drove up.”
Indeed at the trial some time later, “Harris testified that he and another man, Satterwhite (Applewhite, according to court records), had robbed the store ’cause we was out of heroin,'” Matheson described. “They got $57.00. Satterwhite ran east on Rigsby and Harris ran south on Clark. Harris had on a long overcoat.”
“George (Jacobs) was headed North to meet James Harrison to discuss plans for the night after work,” he continued. “George saw Harris running South…Harris said he had some warrants on him and didn’t want to go to jail so when ‘the Officer reached in to call in my name and such, I TOOK MY HANDS OUT MY POCKETS, aimed my gun and shot him in the head.‘”
A week or so later, in February 1973, I saw Officer Spannagel again at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. He was proudly riding his horse patrolling the grounds near the carnival.
“You need to get you one of those,” Spannagel laughed as he pointed to a display of live chameleons. They were selling them with a bobby pin so rodeo goers to attach them on their shirts or hats.
“I think I’ll pass,” I replied, petting his horse. “But Sir, if you want one bad enough I’ll be happy to buy you one.”
He grinned and we chatted a moment more. Before he rode off I asked him if he “was sure he didn’t want one of those color changing lizards.”
“No Jackie,” he retorted. “They look better on you. They go good with your shirt.”
After graduation in May, I went to work as a construction laborer for H.E.B. Construction in Corpus Christi. It was a summer job–helping build a new grocery store on Weber Street–to earn tuition for my fall semester at St. Mary’s University back in San Antonio.
The last weekend of June, I worked doing some jackhammering for overtime pay in nearby Portland, Texas. On Monday, back at the H.E.B. store construction site, my uncle, Sherman Sanders (the job superintendent), called me to his blueprint table and said I had a phone call. It was my father.
Dad had bad news.
“Sorry Son, don’t mean to bother you, but since you worked all weekend I didn’t know if you heard anything,” Dad said. “Russell Spannagel was shot and killed over in Kingsborough on Tidewind Street.”
“What happened?” I asked, knowing the neighborhood well as it was in our school district.
“Well, it was his last call of the night and it was a domestic disturbance,” Dad explained. “There were other policemen on the way right behind him in their cars, but he was struggling with the guy, Johnny Joe Garza. Garza was able to shoot him in the chest. They took Russell to the South East Baptist (Hospital) and they used all the blood they had there. Tried to save him but it was too bad.”
One of the happiest days of my life was when my father retired as a homicide detective from the San Antonio Police Department some years later.
God Bless our emergency responders.
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My thoughts and prayers go out for the families of Officers Jacobs and Spannagel. This is a very heartbreaking post, Jack. 💔 But I’m so glad your father made it to retirement. My thoughts and prayers also go out to all police officers everywhere! 🙏
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I have concerns of innocent people shot by officers, and concerns for officers shot by criminals. I saw, and tried to find, a video that showed way off in the distance something you addressed. The police car, pulling a vehicle over for some violation, had the officer addressing the driver in an otherwise empty parking lot. The passenger was outside the vehicle, pacing back and forth, and suddenly the officer shot the passenger. Turns out that the passenger was pulling a gun, and a single officer, addressing the driver, was still aware of the passenger that should not be out of the car, but even inside, still poses a threat.
As I was off from work for an illness, I went to the local park, on a weekday, neighborhood kids in school (if they were down there, I would not sit there, lest I be mistaken for a pervert). I’d sit there and read, or just relax (and my wife could watch her shows at home), and the local police car pulled up along side. We spoke, I told him where I lived, you could see it from where we were, a few homes away. I told him my brother-in-law is an officer, I think a detective, on the city police force, this was a borough near the city. He eventually turned around in the parking lot and left. 5 Minutes later, he comes back, pulls along side, tells me that my Inspection Sticker and Registration are expired, tells me he needs to see my license, owner’s card, and insurance card, and he pulls into the parking lot, turning around to face my car, off of my Driver’s Side. I gather the documents, with both my hands on the window frame, ask if I can exit the car. He replies yes. I go over to him, the information shows that I live where I pointed out to him, and I asked him “What’s next?” He says “nothing”, hands me my cards, and drives away. I think the “nothing” stemmed from having a relative that was an officer. I impounded my own car, I drove home, a whole 5 homes, and the car didn’t leave the driveway except to be towed in for inspection, and to be inspected, that required a valid registration, which we rectified.
But my long-winded explanation comes from the fact that:
1. People Lie (I lived where I said, and I had no idea the Registration and Inspection was expired, changes in the State handling of it was why I wasn’t aware), but officers are lied to quite often.
2. People are confrontational without need.
3. People make sudden movements that may be threatening to the officer.
4. I can see why the hands are so important, I placed both of mine on the door before asking for permission to exit the car.
I really enjoyed the story, it offers me perspective that I otherwise did not have. My brother-in-law is the silent type, so I don’t hear much from him.
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Thanks. I always am genuinely respectful to any police officer. You never know what they may have been going through even 30 minutes before. It has paid off many times.
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