John “Austin Squatty” Jenkins didn’t live like a typical rare-books dealer. He didn’t die like one, either.
Rather than tweed, he favored white Stetsons and alligator-skin cowboy boots — and sometimes a mink coat. He excelled at high-stakes Texas hold ’em. He took part in an FBI sting at a Queens motel and went to great lengths to exact revenge on enemies. And in 1989 he took a bullet to the back of the head.
A year earlier, I had trailed Jenkins for a magazine article. I was impressed by his hustle at a book fair and the World Series of Poker. Poker pro “Amarillo Slim” Preston described him as “a sneaky, clever rat.”
Jenkins fell into his business as a Texas teen — washing desirable coins so they looked uncirculated and, later, misrepresenting documents supposedly signed by JFK (but actually by Kennedy’s secretary).
As revealed in the book “Bluffing Texas Style: The Arsons, Forgeries, and High Stakes Poker Capers of Rare Book Dealer Johnny Jenkins” (University of Oklahoma Press) by Michael Vinson, gambling at cards and business were seamless for him.
“He was a good guy on some levels and a crook on the deepest level,” Vinson told The Post. “He thought of it all as bluffing.”
But Jenkins had no stomach for being on the losing end of a bluff. Such was the case in 1970 when he purchased a book collection brokered by convicted fraudster James S. Rizek — who scammed him out of some $10,000. Jenkins took the loss quietly, waiting for his revenge.
It came in ’71, when Rizek offered to bring Jenkins in on a new deal: a portfolio of rare plates from “Birds of America” by James Audubon. Jenkins supposedly knew that they had been stolen from Union College in Schenectady, NY.
Jenkins flew to New York City to meet with a man, Kenneth Paull, who had the plates. But first, Jenkins called the FBI. At the Jade East Motel near JFK Airport, he negotiated a price of $50,000.
“FBI agents busted in. But Paull only had a gun and no rare materials,” Vinson said. Although the sting led to no conviction, Jenkins secured what he wanted — cutting Rizek out of a deal.
Soon after, Jenkins teamed up with Ken Rendell, a manuscript dealer, to buy a 326-page Albert Einstein archive of loose notes, paying $12,500 and splitting the pages evenly between them.
“Jenkins sold his share to the University of Texas,” Rendell told The Post. “But he cut his pages in half” — and pretended he had a full set. (The university only discovered this after Jenkins’ death.)
Then there was the time Jenkins claimed to have originals of the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence. Turns out he had a forger create multiples that he then peddled for as much as $30,000 each.
Though Jenkins had won more than $300,000 at poker, he lived large — driving a gold Mercedes — and racked up more than $1 million in gambling debts.
According to the book, Jenkins hoped that burning down one of his book warehouses would get him square. Vinson told The Post Jenkins spirited away his most valuable books, torched the place and collected some $2 million in insurance in 1985.
But when he allegedly tried to pull the stunt once more, he got sloppy. “Investigators discovered acetone sprinkled all over the place,” said Vinson of the second fire.
On April 15, 1989, Jenkins heard that he was to be arrested and charged with arson. The next day, the 49-year-old took off to a remote spot along the Colorado River, outside Austin. Hours later, a woman fishing snagged his body in the water, dead from a gunshot to the skull.
No gun was found and the coroner deemed it homicide. But Vinson thinks it was suicide. “Everything was collapsing around him,” he said.
Rendell has a different answer. “His downfall was not that he believed his own bulls–t. It’s that he thought he had a magic touch,” he said of Jenkins. “That is fatal.”
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