Back to top

Last Gangster in Austin

Last Gangster in Austin
Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle, and the End of a Junkyard Mafia

A true-crime showdown that takes readers back to the grittier and weirder Austin of the 1970s.

Series: Jess and Betty Jo Hay Endowment

June 2022
Add to cart
224 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 14 b&w photos |

Ronnie Earle was a Texas legend. During his three decades as the district attorney responsible for Austin and surrounding Travis County, he prosecuted corrupt corporate executives and state officials, including the notorious US congressman Tom DeLay. But Earle maintained that the biggest case of his career was the one involving Frank Hughey Smith, the ex-convict millionaire, alleged criminal mastermind, and Dixie Mafia figure.

With the help of corrupt local authorities, Smith spent the 1970s building a criminal empire in auto salvage and bail bonds. But there was one problem: a rival in the salvage business threatened his dominance. Smith hired arsonists to destroy the rival; when they botched the job, he sent three gunmen, but the robbery they planned was a bloody fiasco. Investigators were convinced that Smith was guilty, but many were skeptical that the newly elected and inexperienced Earle could get a conviction. Amid the courtroom drama and underworld plots the book describes, Willie Nelson makes a cameo. So do the private eyes, hired guns, and madams who kept Austin not only weird but also riddled with vice. An extraordinary true story, Last Gangster in Austin paints an unusual picture of the Texas capital as a place that was wild, wonderful, and as crooked as the dirt road to paradise.

  • Author’s Note. A Deep Dive
  • Introduction. Junkyard Owner Shotguns Robber: Was It a Setup?
  • Chapter 1. Baptist Preacher’s Son
  • Chapter 2. The Eagle Scout
  • Chapter 3. Texas Package
  • Chapter 4. The Big Hassle
  • Chapter 5. Best Job He Ever Had
  • Chapter 6. The Two Franks
  • Chapter 7. This Is War
  • Chapter 8. He Can Always Go Step on Bugs
  • Chapter 9. A Is for Arson
  • Chapter 10: The Robbery
  • Chapter 11: Power
  • Chapter 12. Star Time
  • Chapter 13. The Trial
  • Chapter 14. Aftermath
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Photo Credits
  • Index

Jesse Sublett is an author, musician, and painter in Austin. This is his fourteenth book. He last wrote about the Austin underworld in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital. Other notable books include Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir (with Eddie Wilson), and his memoir Never the Same Again: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Gothic.


"A rookie district attorney. A wily, backslapping multimillionaire bail bondsman. And one of the biggest criminal investigations in Austin history. Jesse Sublett’s book is both a riveting crime story and a character-rich study of Austin, Texas. It’s smartly crafted and excellently researched."

—Skip Hollandsworth, author of The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America's First Serial Killer

" Once again Jesse Sublett proves that the Lone Star State's capital lives up to its mantra: Keep Austin weird. Enjoy this romp back in time to the era when Ronnie Earle ruled at the courthouse and Frank Smith in the salvage business."

—Kathryn Casey, best-selling author of In Plain Sight: The Kaufman County Prosecutor Murders

“Jesse Sublett is a first-rate writer and researcher. Once again, he dives deep, exposing the creeps and bottom feeders of Austin’s criminal past to create an engrossing portrait of district attorney Ronnie Earle at the dawn of his long and legendary career. Last Gangster in Austin is a great read.’’

—W.K. Kip Stratton, author of The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film