The real story behind Sugarland Express

Pursuit of Robert Dent in southeast Texas, May 1969, which inspired the film “The Sugarland Express.”

Bobby Dent was driving through Port Arthur with his wife Fae, when a patrol car appeared behind him, red lights twirling at 2 AM in the morning. It’s never been determined what exactly the Dents were up to at that time of morning, but whatever it was, it was enough to cause Bobby to panic and try and outrun the squad car. He ended up crashing into a tree in the woods outside town.

Before the police could apprehend the couple, they disappeared into the woods where they located an empty cabin with a working telephone. After meditating on his situation for a few hours, Bobby called the operator and brazenly told her that he and his wife and been hitchhiking when they were beaten and robbed and they required transportation to a doctor or hospital.  At 6 AM, a highway patrolman appeared at the cabin to assist the couple, but when he entered the cabin, Fae and Bobby pointed revolvers at him.

Without any plan of what they were doing next, the Dents took the trooper hostage and began driving to Houston, Fae holding a shotgun to his head in the backseat while Bobby pressed a Magnum against his side. Apparently the Dents did not realize driving down a busy highway in this manner was likely to create commotion, something O. J. Simpson would learn many years later when he made his panicky escape attempt. By the time they reached Houston, the caravan behind them numbered over 100 vehicles.

Texas State Trooper James Kenneth Crone. Crone was kidnapped May 2, 1969, by Robert and Ila Faye Dent.

Jim Crone was the kidnapped officer and DPS Captain Jerry Miller in charge of the rescue. To his great credit, Miller refused to blockade or impede the Dents, and even allowed them to make refuel and bathroom stops without any interference. His only plan was to prevent the Dents from doing harm to anyone.

Along the way, Bobby and Fae decided to turn north so they could visit Fae’s two children from a previous marriage, who were living with their grandmother. Captain Miller made a deal with Bobby that Fae could see her kids for a few minutes and then get a 15-minute headstart to continue their escape. Bobby was gullible enough to believe him and when he opened the door to Fae’s mom’s house with Crone in front of him, Crone threw himself on the floor. Bobby took a shotgun blast in the chest as well as a few revolver rounds in the heart.
Fae dropped her weapon and sobbed, “They’ve killed him.”

Ila Faye Dent, outside a Wheelock home and just feet away from her dead husband, Robert Dent.

The press took a photo of her staring at Bobby’s lifeless body right after the killing.
Fae ended up serving a few months in jail and was then reunited with her kids. Steven Spielberg was 30 when he made the film version of this story, although if you’ve seen the film, you’ll realize how much the story was twisted for cheap emotional effect.

Sugarland Express was Spielberg’s first feature and it bombed, although it’s a highly entertaining movie provided you don’t know the real story. In retrospect, I believe his rise to one of the greatest wag-the-dog producers of our time was ordained from the beginning. Certain people just have all the right connections to get sheep-dipped as a Knight in Shining Armor, and no matter what the outcome of their missions, their promotions will be assured, so it should come as no surprise he was handed a shark film next, and once again showed how effective his tricks could be, no matter if the content was somewhat shallow. Of all his films, Munich really stands out as the best for my taste, and it’s one of my top ten spy films.

One Reply to “The real story behind Sugarland Express”

  1. Spielberg hasn’t changed since. It’s always about the cheap emotion. The infallible puppy eyes will get you every time!! And it’s always a good distraction from the real problems on the world.This helps keeping order and everybody in his place and social class. Ok I’m putting too much thoughts into that you’re thinking..well, that could be..but think about it, at the end of the day, it’s the dollars that counts. And in a consumer world, pre-digested emotions can have a profit value too. Just like Disney. An engineered formula that never fails to get you, or your grandma, or your kids, or your neighbors.
    It’s the perfect allied of the establishment. It makes you believe that it loves you, it cares about your problems, while hammering messages like “buy a house, have a dog, 2 cars and have kids”, “America is always right and a soldier of Jesus”, “non wasp and gentiles are tolerable… Sometimes… Mostly not… Only when they’re a hot blonde with fake boobs”. Or paint you like a stereotype, like when the poor’s are always victims and the riches evils doers. And the drug users always in trouble or criminals. It shows people without a family and a house being sad and depressed.
    Spielberg a few years ago was fighting over a lagoon in Malibu I believe, wanted to build a space mall, fighting local association mostly led by Indians. He lost. But hey, a big mall instead of watching and preserving wild life, bring it right?! It was just a project and I don’t believe it got much attention. It’s Spielberg, he can’t do wrong, he can’t do bad. He’s USA voice.
    Well guess what. USA voice is a bit more subtle than black and white. It’s extremely grey. It’s never one side . And next time pick a side for once, before hearing the consensus. Don’t pretend to be a liberal because most of Hollywood pretends to be.
    Powerful people like Spielberg have a responsibility. A great way of reaching many. It’s almost a weapon. And as for every weapons it can be used against all sides. Make people think, open their eyes, not fall asleep in a daze, an hypnotic state that feels right but isn’t.
    Just my opinion, I know we’re not entitled to one anymore… It’s forbidden to hate or love against the consensus.

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