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From Denton to HBO: The tale of 'King Rex,' his Cowboy Mafia and how it all fell apart

Nearly 20 years after his death, Rex Cauble's saga is heading to Hollywood.
Credit: UNT Special Collection/Dalco Photography, AP
Rex Cauble, left, is being played by Henry Winkler in a new HBO miniseries.

DENTON, Texas — Rex Cauble was a millionaire cowboy who loved horses, hated drugs and cozied up to the elite, from the Texas governor to the president's sister.

At least that's how most of Denton viewed him before Nov. 29, 1978, when, about 350 miles to the south, a boat arrived on the Texas Coast with 20 tons of marijuana on board.

Cauble wasn't on the boat. But what transpired, as a result, ultimately sent him to federal prison.

Now, nearly 20 years after his death, Cauble's saga is heading to Hollywood.

HBO last week announced the network is developing "King Rex," a miniseries chronicling how, in the late 1970s, Cauble's "North Texas kingdom got itself smashed to pieces by a judge's gavel, the IRS and the FBI."

The series doesn't have an air date yet, but it does have a star. Henry Winkler will play the role of Cauble, with his Winkler's son, Max, set to direct the pilot.

The series could have easily held another catchy title: "Cowboy Mafia," the name given to Cauble's operation by Texas media.

In 1980, as Cauble's case worked through the courts, Texas Monthly's Lawrence Wright dove into the saga, penning a true crime article called "Rex Cauble and Cowboy Mafia."

And it was nothing short of a thriller.

The piece detailed Cauble's rise as a young oil wildcatter and eventual multi-millionaire; his ventures into high-priced quarter horses, including his famed Cutter Bill, a world champion cutting horse; and, ultimately, his friendship with Charles "Muscles" Foster, the alleged ringleader of the smuggling operation.

Foster never got convicted in the smuggling case; he was acquitted by reason of insanity. But it was Foster who was there in November 1978, when he and the other smugglers arrived at a dock between Port Arthur and Galveston, with an estimated $24 million in marijuana in tow.

The problem, that day, was the slew of law enforcement waiting on their arrival.

As Wright wrote for Texas Monthly, Foster and the smugglers "had been good as caught, really, before they ever left port."

Authorities were already investigating Cauble and were waiting to bust the smugglers when they returned from a 22-day trip at sea, as they traveled to Colombia and back.

The men and women on the boat were charged with drug crimes. And then authorities turned their attention toward Cauble, accusing the cowboy of running and funding the operation.

Cauble was charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law, and his trial was held in 1982, in Tyler.

In his defense, Cauble relied on character witnesses, including Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelist sister of President Jimmy Carter, according to the Denton County Office of History and Culture.

John Connally, the former Texas governor and a friend of Cauble, also attended the trial in support.

But the jury found Cauble guilty on 10 counts of racketeering and he was sentenced to five years in prison for each count.

He was ordered to serve the sentences concurrently. After his release in 1987, he returned to North Texas, living in the Denton area until his death in 2003, at 89.

In the coverage of his death, his widow, Anna, defended her husband.

"If you have that much, and you are doing that much with your life and have that many employees, things happen," she said. "Up until the day he died, I would swear he did not do it."