The below story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.
The Horn of the Bull
By Paul Davis
I was told that Lieutenant Edwin Fay was thrilled with being a naval intelligence officer back in 1965.
James Bond-mania was in full swing then and Fay was a huge fan of the Bond films and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Fay was pleased to learn that his true-life hero, the late President John F. Kennedy, a World War II naval officer, was also a fan of the Bond novels and once dined with Fleming, who had been a British naval intelligence officer in World War II.
Fay, a thin, baby-faced young man of 28, was stationed in San Diego, California in 1965. His assignment was to coordinate intelligence with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and the Mexican Federal Judicial Police concerning a Mexican crime lord suspected of smuggling vast amounts of narcotics into the United States via a fleet of merchant ships.
Fay thought this was the stuff of thrillers. He loved traveling down to Tijuana, Mexico in his "civies" - his civilian clothes - for meetings with the FBN and the Federalies. He told friends that after the Friday meetings, he would drink in local bars, admire the senoritas, and dream of his budding naval career.
According to the Navy’s investigation report, it was after one of these meetings that Fay was abducted after he stepped out of a Tijuana bar.
Witnesses reported that Fay was accosted by two pistoleros as he left the bar. The two gunmen beat Fay into unconsciousness and pushed him into the cab of a truck. A FBN informant later reported that Fay was taken to a bull ranch outside Tijuana. He was tied and bound to a chair in a dark room and then revived. The two gunmen, identified by the informant only as Pedro and Alfredo, began to beat Fay.
Off to the side of the room stood a heavy, thick-set man with a large, flat face that Fay no doubt recognized from the numerous surveillance photos he had viewed the previous months. The man was Neron Rodrigo, the crime lord targeted by the FBN and the Mexican police. Standing next to Rodrigo was the stunningly beautiful Mexican girl that Fay and the FBN agents often lusted over in the photos.
Fay’s beating was severe, and he eventually answered all of their questions. With a nod from Rodrigo, the two men picked up Fay and dragged him out of the house and stood him against the fence of a bull pen.
"Do you like the bulls?" the informant reported that Rodrigo asked Fay. "Do you come to Mexico for the girls or the bulls?"
The two gunmen laughed loudly as they bound Fay’s hands tightly behind his back.
"You, my stupid young friend, chose to face the wrong bull - me," Rodrigo explained patiently to the beaten and bleeding naval officer. "And now you must face this other bull."
Rodrigo motioned towards the bull pen with his right thumb and the two gunmen lifted Fay and tossed him over the fence.
With his hands tied behind him, Fay had difficulty getting to his feet, but despite his wounds from the beating, the young officer was up and moving as the powerful black bull charged. The 1,000-pound bull slammed and tore into Fay’s back and Fay was spun violently and fell to the ground. He lay in a twisted heap, trying to catch his breath.
His abductors leaned on the fence and cheered the bull on. Standing a few feet back from the pen, the girl was expressionless. Fay somehow summoned the strength to get on his feet and move, but the bull charged again and one of the ferocious animal’s horns tore into Fay’s left leg, splitting it open from ankle to knee. Fay let out a chilling scream and collapsed to the ground.
The bull loomed over Fay, pummeling him as he lay helpless and semi-conscious. His wounds bleed profusely into the sand. With a wave from Rodrigo, the man called Pedro distracted the bull as Alfredo jumped in and dragged Fay out of the pen.
Rodrigo cursed the young officer and delivered a severe kick to his head. He then pulled out a knife with a six-inch steel blade and a handle made from a bull's horn. He leaned down and spoke quietly to Fay.
"The horns of the bull have torn you apart," Rodrigo said. "But it will be this horn of the bull that will kill you."
Rodrigo grabbed Fay's shirt and stabbed Fay in the chest repeatedly.
"Toss him in the street as a message," Rodrigo told his pistoleros. "I want everyone to know that it will take a stronger man to face this bull."
Fay’s broken, bloody and torn body was thrown into the street from a speeding truck. The Tijuana police recovered the body and Fay was identified by his Navy dog tags. The Mexican police notified the U.S. Navy in San Diego.
In 1970, five years after Fay’s body was discovered, I was an 18-year-old enlisted sailor serving aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
The aircraft carrier was home-ported in San Diego, and we were going to sea every Monday through Friday, performing sea trials, damage control drills and air operations in preparation of our upcoming combat cruise to Vietnam. When the carrier returned to port in San Diego for the weekends, many of the Kitty Hawk's nearly 5,000 men, myself included, ventured down to neighboring Tijuana for the wild and crazy nightlife.
There were at least a dozen cautionary tales circulating at the time that illustrated how Tijuana was truly a rough town. I recall one often-told, particularly gruesome and seemingly far-fetched story of a Navy officer who was gored to death by a bull and then dumped unceremoniously into the street.
The story was true, I discovered many years later. I read the Navy’s declassified investigation report and I heard the details of the decades-old murder directly from the Navy’s investigating officer. The Navy appointed an unusual officer to investigate the grisly murder in Mexico.
The Navy sent a frogman.
Admiral Gordon Gray was walking history. Affectionately called "the old frogman," Gray was a legend in the U.S. Navy. Like Admiral John D. Bulkley and Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, Gray was one of the few post-WWII naval officers who served more than 50 years on active duty. Rising from seaman to admiral, Gray saw combat in three major wars as well as a dozen conflicts around the globe.
Over the course of his storied career, Gray served as a PT boat seaman, a guerrilla in the Philippines, an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) frogman, a naval intelligence officer, and an investigating officer.
I was proud and fortunate to have interviewed the old admiral over the course of many months. He allowed me to do a series of exclusive interviews with him and he provided me with photos, declassified reports and his old notes. He also allowed me to tape record my interviews with him.
There was only one proviso.
I could not publish my interviews with him until after his death.
Admiral Gordon Gray died peacefully of natural causes. He died in his bed, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I first heard of Gordon Gray from my late father, Edward M. Davis, who was a Navy chief petty officer and UDT frogman during WWII. My father, who was medically discharged after the war due to combat injuries, often spoke proudly of his former teammate. I recall my father being pleased to read my letter in which I described my brief encounter with Gray when he came aboard the Kitty Hawk in 1971 while the carrier was anchored in Da Nang Harbor in South Vietnam.
I became a writer some years after leaving the Navy. Having been a student of crime since I was a 12-year-old aspiring writer growing up in South Philadelphia, I went on to write a weekly crime column for the local newspaper, and I became a contributing editor to National Security, a national monthly magazine that covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
While on assignment for National Security, I interviewed a good number of World War II UDT veterans and active-duty Navy SEALS for a piece on the UDT frogmen of World War II and how those first frogmen influenced the modern-day Navy SEALs.
One of the old UDT veterans told me that he served with both my father and Gray. He said he was still in touch with the retired and reclusive admiral, and although Gray did not grant interviews, he gave me the admiral’s e-mail address so I could contact him and attempt to draw him out.
I e-mailed Gray and requested an interview. Although he rarely granted interviews, I wrote that I felt he owed it to history and his former teammates to speak publicly about his career. I noted that many of the men he served with, like my father, had passed on.
It must have been a good pitch, as Gray called me a short while later. In an hour-long telephone conversation, he said he fondly remembered my late father. He told a couple of stories about serving under my father as UDT 5 hit the Japanese-held beaches of Saipan, Tinian and Leyte.
"We swam ashore, wearing swim trunks, face mask and coral shoes, and we went up against 40,000 enemy Japanese soldiers, armed only with a satchel of explosives and our combat knives," Gray said proudly.
He laughed when he also recalled my father getting him out of jail in Hawaii after he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.
"My father told me that he knew every police sergeant in Hawaii," I said.
Gray laughed at the memory of his old chief convincing police sergeants to let the UDT frogmen out of jail so they could go back into combat. Gray also recalled visiting the Kitty Hawk in Vietnam many years later and talking to a number of young sailors, one of whom, I informed him, was me.
Gray said he did not normally grant interviews, but he happened to read my newspaper column each week, although he didn't know I was his old chief's son, and he also read some of my magazine pieces, including the story on UDT and the modern SEALs. So due to my Navy background and with respect for my father, Gray consented to a series of exclusive interviews with me. I looked forward to interviewing Admiral Gray about his amazing life.
We arranged to meet a week later at his home. I knew Gray was originally from South Philadelphia, but I didn't know that he settled back in the city after he retired from the Navy, and that he lived quietly in a riverside neighborhood not far from my own South Philly home.
When I arrived at his home for our first interview, Gray answered the door promptly and welcomed me. I followed him to the back of the house to his office. The room had an old wooden desk and a black leather chair and in front of the desk was a small, round wood table with two chairs. Behind his desk and chair was a set of glass doors that led to a small yard and garden.
I looked around the room and saw that in between the books on his floor-to-ceiling wood bookcases there were framed photos of his family and a few framed photos of Gray in uniform with other military people. A small model of a PT boat and a small model of a destroyer were also on display on the bookshelves. There was an old combat knife in a black leather sheath on a shelf. My late father's similar old UDT knife, called a Ka-Bar, sat on a bookshelf in my book-lined basement office.
I noted that there were no medals or military awards on display. The office was tidy and neat and would easily pass a Navy inspection.
The admiral, a big man with short-cropped iron-gray hair and a tanned and deeply lined face, looked fit and healthy for a man of his advanced age. Despite his age and his casual civilian attire, I could see that he retained his military bearing and command presence. I read somewhere that a friend of his noted that Gray moved like a panther. Even as the elderly admiral walked casually around his home, I could see what the friend meant.
As we sat down, I also recalled an historian writing about the Alamo and noted that Travis, Bowie, and Crockett all had what the Mexicans called "blue-gray killer's eyes." I saw that the old admiral had blue-gray killer's eyes as well.
Gray offered me a cup of coffee and a cigar in a deep, rich voice that a stage actor or military drill instructor would envy. I set up my small tape recorder and laid my notebook and pen on the round table and sat in one of the chairs. Gray sat in the other chair, handed me a cigar, and poured us coffee from a carafe.
We drank the good and strong Navy-style coffee, lit the fine cigars, and Gray asked me about my late father and my family. He said he was sorry to hear that my father had passed. He also asked about my doing security work in the U.S. Navy and later as a Defense Department civilian employee.
Gray noticed that on my left wrist I wore a stainless-steel, black-faced Rolex Submariner diver's watch, like the one he was also wearing on his left wrist. He asked me if I were a diver.
Strictly a sports diver, I replied, and an amateur at that. I spoke of my sports diving in oceans around the world from the Philippines and Hawaii to the Virgin Islands and Jamaica, places Gray also knew well. I told the admiral that my Rolex Submariner was my prize possession, given to me years ago by a beautiful young woman as a 30th birthday present. I married her a month later.
Gray cracked a smile at that. He said that like many frogmen, pilots, astronauts, aquanauts and other military men, he'd worn his Rolex Submariner during most of his career.
Now I’m a proud Navy veteran, an unabashed patriot, and a big supporter of the military, but even after all these years, I still possess my enlisted man’s distrust of military brass. I've always had problems with authority, yet I felt there was something genuine and down-to-earth about this old admiral.
When I first addressed him as "Admiral Gray," he responded, "I'm retired. Call me Gordon."
Gray picked a cardboard box up from the floor and slid it across the table towards me. I opened it and saw that it contained records, files and photographs. The box, one of two dozen I would eventually receive, contained Gray’s declassified official investigation reports. The box also contained various other declassified documents. Gray said he cleared the release of the records to me.
I looked over a batch of photos that I pulled out of the box, some of which were marked "Mexico, 1965″ and showed photos of Gray as a younger, leaner, dark-haired and ruggedly handsome man.
I knew the public legend, but I asked Gray to begin our talks by providing a brief overview of his life and career before we concentrated on a specific time or incident in his life to cover in this initial session.
Admiral Gordon Gray, often described by friends as taciturn, looked uncomfortable talking about himself, but he took a long draw from his cigar and then soldiered on to say that like me, he was born in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.
His father, a WWI Navy veteran, moved from rural Pennsylvania to South Philadelphia to work on ships at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Gray, an only child, was born in a row home not far from the shipyard. His father instilled in him a love for the Navy and a love of country.
Gray said he was a city boy, but his father took him hunting up in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains every winter and he spent several summers working on an uncle's fishing boat off the South Jersey shore. This background helped prepare him for his Navy career.
Gray went on to say that he enlisted in the Navy at 17 and was sent to serve on a PT boat in the Philippine Islands prior to the outbreak of WWII. During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Gray’s PT boat was hit with a shell during an engagement with a Japanese destroyer.
Blown clear off the boat and into the night’s choppy, black water, Gray quickly recovered and discovered that he was the sole survivor of the PT boat crew. Gray, an all-round athlete who boxed for the squadron, was an excellent swimmer and he swam ashore easily. With only minor injuries from the Japanese shell, he sat on the beach and watched the naval battle rage.
Refusing to surrender to the Japanese occupying forces, Gray joined the American and Filipino guerrilla bands that were forming an active resistance. The young seafarer learned new skills such as guerrilla warfare and the art of espionage. The guerrillas harassed and spied on the occupying Japanese forces, providing vital information via the radio to the American forces in Australia.
Gray excelled in performing acts of sabotage as he became proficient with explosives. He earned a reputation as a fearless guerrilla fighter and a skillful intelligence operative.
In his last act as a guerrilla in the Philippines, Gray dropped silently into the sea from a fishing boat, swam ashore and penetrated deep inside an enemy garrison. Once inside the garrison he sought out a particularly vicious Japanese Kempei Tai colonel. Armed only with his combat knife, Gray took the brutal Japanese Secret Service officer in swift and close combat, killing him soundlessly. He then escaped back into the sea and swam to the fishing boat without alerting the Japanese guards.
The Japanese mounted a massive manhunt for the colonel’s executioner. Gray hid out in the jungle, but he was betrayed by a close Filipino friend in the guerrilla band, and he was captured by the Japanese. Defiant in the face of torment and constant beatings, Gray later escaped and rejoined his guerrilla band. With the Japanese mounting another massive manhunt for Gray, the American colonel who led the guerrilla band leader made arrangements for the young sailor to be exfiltrated from the Philippines via an American submarine.
Gray boarded the submarine secretly and after he changed into dry clothes, he was examined by a medical corpsman and given dinner. After dinner he had coffee with Commander Brad Hunt, a naval intelligence officer that happened to be a passenger aboard the submarine.
He was debriefed by Hunt. Considering Gray’s skills and experiences with swimming and explosives, Hunt suggested that Gray volunteer for a new, classified, elite outfit that he heard was forming back in Florida.
"That elite outfit was UDT," Gray said.
Thanks to Hunt's letter of recommendation, Gray joined UDT. He served as a UDT frogman in the Pacific for the rest of WWII. Before General MacArthur waded ashore in triumphant return to the Philippines, Gray, along with my father and other members of UDT 5, swam in and performed night reconnaissance of the shoreline and later planted explosives to clear the way for the forthcoming amphibious landings. Gray had made this swim once before, but this time he was at the spearhead of a mighty invasion force.
Gray remained in UDT after the war and he later fought in the Korean War, where he earned an officer’s commission as an Ensign.
While serving on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Arleigh Burke, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gray, like a number of other special operations veterans, recommended expanding the mission of the UDT frogmen. When President Kennedy, the Ian Fleming fan, later supported the Navy' thrust to develop a Special Operations outfit akin to the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, some of Gray’s ideas were adapted in the formation of the SEALs (Sea, Air and land).
In 1962, the Navy selected a small group of UDT officers and enlisted men and commissioned them as SEALs. The men were formed into SEAL Team One on the West Coast and SEAL Team Two on the East Coast. On track to become a naval intelligence officer, Gray remained a UDT officer assigned to the CNO’s staff.
Despite his often grim and hazardous duty, or perhaps because of it, Gray was typical of the young men in the Navy at the time. He had a reputation as a fun-loving, hell-raising, hard-drinking, and girl-chasing sailor. Gray modified his personal behavior when he married late in his life. He and his wife had a son who was now a serving naval officer.
Although Gray did not mention it, I knew that among his many medals and citations, he was awarded the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars.
Concluding the overview of his career, Gray said that he wanted to begin our interview sessions with a story of an operation in Mexico in 1965. He spoke of being sent to Tijuana, Mexico as an investigating officer after the murder of a young Navy officer.
"The suspect was an international criminal with his own private navy." Gray said.
Gray began to recount a meeting he attended at the Pentagon in 1965. Gray, then a newly promoted lieutenant commander, was called to the meeting by Captain James Moore, a special assistant to the CNO. Moore, a short, thin, gruff former combat submariner, told Gray that the CNO wanted him to attend a meeting with a FBN official.
The federal drug agent came to the Pentagon to brief Moore on the vicious murder of Fay in Mexico. The CNO was furious about the murder, and he was dissatisfied with the Naval Investigative Service's report, which concluded that Fay was the victim of a random robbery-murder, suspect or suspects unknown. With the new information from the BDN, the CNO wanted action. His order to send for "the frogman," whom he considered his personal troubleshooter, was a clear indication of that.
Fay provided valuable assistance to the FBN by coordinating the tracking of the drug smugglers’ ships at sea by the U.S. Navy’s ships and aircraft, FBN Special Agent Tom Cobb told Moore and Gray. He also said that the young, affable officer was well-liked by the FBN agents and the Mexican police officers.
Cobb, a stocky man with short brown hair and a tight-fitting, rumbled black suit, looked every bit like a hard-nosed, world-weary cop. Cobb began the briefing, occasionally glancing at the folder in front of him.
"We suspect that Lieutenant Edwin Fay was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Neron Rodrigo," Cobb told the two naval officers sitting across from him. "Rodrigo is the legitimate owner of a fleet of commercial merchant ships, but we believe he is also a major drug smuggler and a psychotic killer.
Cobb went on to say that Rodrigo’s shipping line provided cover for his crime empire. He was known in the criminal world as “El Toro," the Bull, for his strength, deadly skills and a bull-like physique. Rodrigo made wide use of murder, violence, intimidation, bribery and corruption to protect his growing legitimate and criminal enterprises. His trademark weapon was a razor-sharp six-inch knife with a handle made from a bull’s horn.
Rodrigo had criminal partners all over the world and the FBN received information from confidential informants that Rodrigo was in the process of establishing a partnership with Carlos Mendez, a major drug supplier in Mexico and American organized crime in the Western United States. This partnership, if established, Cobb explained, would flood the U.S. with heroin. Heroin addiction, the agent explained to the naval officers, was a growing national crisis.
Cobb helped himself to a class of water from the pitcher on the table. He took a huge gulp as if to wash down the distasteful story he had to tell the Navy officers.
"Rodrigo was a street urchin growing up in Tijuana. He had a nasty reputation for targeting American sailors," Cobb explained. "His mother worked the bars and entertained sailors and when Rodrigo became a teenager he would rob and assault sailors at knife-point, often stabbing them simply for his pleasure."
According to the Mexican police, Rodrigo hates Americans in general and American sailors in particular, as he believes his father was an American sailor who abandoned him. He also hated American sailors due to one young sailor who refused to be a victim.
Although the sailor had been staggering drunk when he left a Tijuana bar, closely followed by Rodrigo, the sailor was able to quickly disarm Rodrigo and knocked him out cold.
"He dragged Rodrigo back to the bar and dropped him in the doorway like a sack of mail," Cobb said bluntly.
Rodrigo was deeply humiliated, and he soon extracted his revenge by targeting another unfortunate American sailor who was walking tipsily down a back street. Rodrigo, armed with a knife, savagely murdered the sailor.
The Mexican police went all out to arrest Rodrigo, but thanks to a rising young drug kingpin - his future Mexican partner, the Mexican police suspect - he was spirited away on a cargo ship heading to South American ports-of-call.
Rodrigo became a merchant seaman and over the years he became involved with criminal organizations in several countries, acting first as a smuggler and later as a paid contract killer for various crime syndicates. His reputation grew steadily, and he invested his considerable criminal earnings into a small shipping line. His shipping holdings were now so clouded in foreign registries and fronts that investigators did not know exactly what he owned or controlled, but they believed his holdings to be vast.
Cobb passed out surveillance photos to Moore. Moore glanced at them with a disdainful look and passed them to Gray. Gray saw that Rodrigo was in his early 50s and was a big, thick and heavy man. His powerful arms and torso stretched against his shirt. He had a flattened face, slicked back black hair and pitted-olive skin. He was by no means handsome, but with him in nearly every photo was a stunning, raven-haired beauty. Gray wondered who she was.
"Her name is Adoncia Prado," Cobb offered, reading Gray’s mind. "She is Rodrigo’s girlfriend."
According to their source, Cobb continued, Rodrigo reacted angrily to the news that American narcotic agents brought in the U.S. Navy to perform naval and air surveillance of his ships. Rodrigo, the source said, personally supervised the torture of Fay and stabbed and murdered him. He bragged about the murder to his chief lieutenants, one of whom was an FBN confidential informant. Although the FBN informant was willingly to provide information about the crime, he would not testify against Rodrigo in a Mexican or American court.
Cobb said that America had a strong ally in Mexico with Commandante Gregorio Alvero of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. Alvero was an incorruptible police officer who supervised a small, tough squad of drug raiders. Cobb said that Alvero was a fearless career policeman with a keen sense of humor that infuriated the criminals he pursued, such as Rodrigo.
As Gray listened, he stole another glance at the young woman’s photo. She possessed an angelic face, but Gray also detected an underlying toughness.
When the briefing ended, Captain Moore was clearly angered. He slapped the wood conference table and stood up. He chewed on his wet, slim cigar for a moment, as if he were chewing on his next words.
"This man, this murderer," he said slowly, spitting out bits of cigar leaf that hit the tabletop. "Why, he’s a clear threat to American national security. He’s a damn criminal with his own damn navy!"
Moore told Gray that the CNO had appointed him as an investigating officer and ordered him to go to Mexico and investigate Fay’s murder and Rodrigo's possible involvement. He told Gray that another intelligence officer had been assigned to provide naval surveillance support to the federal drug cops, but he would remain safely in San Diego.
Cobb thanked the captain. Cobb handed Gray his business card and asked him to call later in the day. Cobb then gathered up his files and left the conference room.
"If your investigation confirms Rodrigo murdered Fay, we’ll take him down,” Moore told Gray. “He may have gotten away with killing one American sailor when he was a teenage Tijuana street rat, but he sure as hell will not skate on Fay’s murder. You make sure of that.”
"Aye, aye, Sir."
As they left the conference room and walked down the Pentagon passageway, Moore advised Gray to remember the Barbary War.
"The American Navy has fought pirates before," Moore growled.
© 2002 Paul Davis