Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Welcome to Johnson County, Texas: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation
by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved
Eight months earlier, on Christmas eve, 2005, 21-year-old Jose Cardenas, of Cleburne, was arrested after fighting with a family member during a holiday party. During the fight he’d been hit in the head with a bottle, so officers transported him to Harris Walls regional hospital, which checked him for injuries, then released him to the custody of officers who transported him to the Johnson County jail.
On December 25, Cardenas began having seizures and was transported to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, which, like Walls, treated and released him back to the county jail. The next day, Cardenas got into a scuffle with another inmate, who, after being struck several times, hit Cardenas once. Cardenas was transported back to JPS, where he stayed until his death on January 1, 2006. An autopsy revealed that he died of “blunt trauma to head and brain,” and called the death a “homocide.”
That people die in police custody or jail is not unusual. They are arrested in all sorts of physical conditions, frequently high on drugs or alcohol. What is unusual is that in Cardenas’ case, he was seen twice by doctors who failed to detect that he had serious head trauma and both times returned to jail. What is unusual in Jamison’s case is that she arrived in what her husband said was “good health” and wound up dying less than five weeks later, after having been terribly ill but not seeing a doctor until she’d been sick for some time.
According to Johnson County Sheriff Bob Alford, who’s command includes running the county jail, Jamison was complaining that she needed to see a doctor “for several days,” before being taken to a hospital. According to a woman who was in jail with Jamison, “she ran a fever of 104 degrees for nine days and they didn’t do anything but give her Tylenol.”
No one on the medical staff at the Johnson County Correctional Center would talk about the Jamison case with the Fort Worth Weekly, but her treatment—or lack of it—was so upsetting to some of the jail staff that at least two jailers quit because of it. One of them, who agreed to speak with the Weekly on condition we didn’t use their name, called the Jamison treatment “the last straw. There are a couple of great nurses there but over all, the medical end of the jail is simply awful.”
Jamison’s husband is understandably distraught. “My wife left the scene of an accident on March 3 and was arrested for that. She was in the first stages of her trial—I think she’d made two court appearances—when they sent her to jail. She walked in on her own, healthy. Two weeks later she began complaining to the guards that she was sick. She sat there two weeks before anybody did anything for her, and when they did it was too late.”
Alford questioned the claim that Jamison was healthy when she arrived, saying that she had “a serious drug and alcohol abuse problem.”
William Jamison denies that. He says that his wife, a 5’7” brunette, hadn’t used drugs since their marriage 14-years ago. “When we met she said she’d done drugs, but I told her ‘not with me you won’t.’ And she didn’t, not that I knew. But then the doc at the hospital told me she died of hepatitis B. Well, she’d never been diagnosed with that but they told me they thought she’d got it in the last year or two. I don’t know much about that. I just wonder if they’d taken her to a hospital sooner whether she’d still be alive.”
The doctor in charge of the medical facilities at the jail, Dr. Arthur Raines, did not return any of several phone calls made by the Weekly. A check of the county records shows, however, that Raines, whose wife Katherine is a former mayor of Cleburne, is also the Johnson County Medical Officer as well as the county Medical Examiner.
“He might be in charge,” said the former jailer, “but he wasn’t around much when I was working. I’d say that in the time I worked there I saw him maybe once a year, if that.”
Asked about the other doctors on Raines’ staff, the former jailer said there were no other doctors. “X-Ray people would come from time to time, but that was it. And the worst part was, we jailers saw people like Ms. Jamison sick and wanted to get her to a hospital, but we were told it wasn’t our concern. Our hands were tied.”
Sheriff Alford confirmed that the only people who can order a prisoner to be transferred to a hospital are the nursing staff, unless it’s an extreme emergency. “Those calls come from medical, not the Sheriff’s department” he said. “That’s just the way it works.”
“Oh, it’s worse than you can imagine,” said the former jailer. “There was never a nurse on duty on weekend nights. There was always one on call but the jailers were told not to call them. That poor woman might have made herself sick with her lifestyle, but to see her like that for so long—more than a week—when it was obvious to everyone that she needed to be in a hospital… that just kills you inside. And it’s all over money. I had a guy get hit in a basketball game in the yard one time and he fell and hit his head. He was bleeding from both ears and it still took over an hour for the medical staff to decide whether or not he needed to see a doctor. They were afraid to call one because it would cost the county money.”
With its lush, rolling hills, horse and cattle ranches, and beautiful turn-of-the-century cities like Cleburne, Godley and Joshua, much of bucolic Johnson County has maintained a small town feel. And with modern Burleson—which is mostly in Johnson and partly in Tarrant—it’s also got a touch of Fort Worth jazziness as well. But for all its beauty, something is not right in Johnson County. It’s a county of unimaginable wealth from old ranches, modern factories and the Barnett Shale, but most of its people are poor. It’s home to over 100 churches but not a single halfway house or men’s or women’s shelter (though there is a shelter for battered women), and has no soup kitchen. It’s also a dry county that permits a handful of restaurants to serve liquor—in the county seat of Cleburne only. It’s home to several police forces noted for their bullying behavior, has a rich history of scandal and corruption, and a criminal justice bureaucracy that might have been designed by Franz Kafka. More than nine percent of the population of Johnson County between the ages of 18-60 is either on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at any given time—and yet there is very little violent crime. The local motto is “Johnson County: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation.” And until two years ago, the country store on the corner of Godley Avenue and Main Street in Godley was named the Koffee Klatch Korner, with the ‘K’s’ in extra large lettering. The sign has since been removed.
It’s a bit schizophrenic. In 2004, while the city of Burleson went after Joanne Webb—a former teacher who was a church-going, Burleson booster, for selling sex toys to women at Tupperware-like parties in women’s homes—with a vengeance, the town forgave the elderly cross-dressing scion of an old Johnson County family when photos of him in full drag appeared just days before an election in which he was a candidate.
“We’re a little crazy, alright,” says Pam Humphrey, a former writer for the Fort Worth Weekly and the Cleburne Times-Review. “We’re beautiful but sort of rotten too.” The primary problem with Johnson County, she says, is a criminal justice system that doesn’t have a level playing field. “What you have are people who are on the inside and then the rest of us. The football team can have a drunken brawl in the middle of Main Street and the police won’t do anything or arrest anyone. But then the kids that don’t fit in, well, they’re constantly harassed.”
Humphrey knows what she’s talking about. She raised three sons in Burleson and says it was hard to keep them out of trouble. Not because they were bad, but because of the free hand the police are given and the bullying tactics they are permitted to use.
“A few years ago a friend of one of my sons was out on a ballfield making donuts with his truck one day. Well, the police came out there and told him to stop, and he did. But then they tried to have him charged with attempted capital murder because they said the truck slid towards them. Fortunately the DA didn’t go along with that.”
Another time, Humphrey said, her boys went to an apartment complex near her home and went swimming in the complex pool. “Someone called the police and here they come, and they wanted to charge my boys with burglary. For what? Stealing the use of a swimming pool? They made the boys open the trunk of the car and there was a jack and a tire iron in there. Well of course there was. How else are you going to change a tire? But the police claimed it was a burglary tool and came to my house and demanded to search it for stolen property.” Humphrey asked if they had a search warrant. “I told them I wouldn’t let them without one, and they said—this was a Friday—that if I didn’t permit the search they’d just arrest my sons and get the search warrant on Monday. So I let them search—of course there was nothing—but imagine coercing a search that way?”
One woman currently on probation for Driving Under the Influence says that such police behavior and charges are typical in Johnson. “I was driving home from work one night. I live out in the country and was on a dark road. Suddenly I saw police lights behind me. I turned on my flashers and continued driving until I got to a place where there was a light. You know, girls and women are taught never to stop unless there is a light because you don’t really know who is a policeman or who is an imposter. So I stopped under the light and the next thing you know he pulled me out of the car, threw me on the ground, stepped on my back and arrested me for ‘evading arrest.’ Evading arrest for what? I wasn’t drunk, I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Asked if she would allow her name to be used, she said “Oh, my god, no. They’d find something to revoke my probation and send me to jail. They’re vindictive here.”
Criminal justice in Johnson County starts and ends with District Attorney Dale Hanna. Hanna, who did not return several calls from the Weekly, was elected in 1992. Both friends and adversaries claim that he’s hard on crime, doesn’t take to explainations very well and can be vindictive. On the other hand, even his enemies say that if he makes an agreement with you, he’ll keep it.
“You can call it Johnson County if you like,” says a Fort Worth attorney who has tangled with Hanna in court. “But it’s Dale Hanna County to anyone who has ever been involved in the legal system, whether as a defendant or a lawyer.” The attorney spoke on condition of anonymity “because he’s very vindictive and he’ll bury my clients if I ever take another case in Johnson County.”
According to the US Census Bureau, Johnson County has 85,000 adults between the ages of 18-60. At any given time, 7,500 of them are enmeshed in the legal system there. Currently, there are roughly 5,300 people on probation, 1,600 in the county jail, state jails or state prisons, and 500-plus more on parole. “It’s a tough county, no question about it. It’s tougher than most when it comes to prosecution of crime,” says Sheriff Alford, who’s got 30-years in law enforcement, most of it outside of Johnson County.
Of those on probation, more than 3,200 are on felony probation, an unusually high number for a county with very little violent crime. “What we get,” says Alford, “are mom and pop drug dealers and users, bad checks, that sort of thing. We get some of the violence, of course, but it’s not as pronounced here as in many places.”
“Let’s face it,” says Richard De los Santos, a Cleburne attorney, “in any small community the police are tougher than they are in big cities. No question about it.”
Basic probation in Johnson County costs each probationer an average of $50 monthly. According to Toby Ross, director of the adult probation department for Johnson County, court costs, a payment into the fund which pays court-appointed attorneys, fines, and urinalysis fees, add to those costs, bringing the average monthly fee somewhat higher. With over 5,000 people on probation, that comes to a minimum of $250,000 monthly. Extra fees and fines easily double that.
“Now that’s why they like having so many people on probation,” explained Bill Miller, owner of Bill’s Books on Cleburne’s Main Street, across from the old courthouse. “It’s big business.” Miller, a former stringer for the Fort Worth Star Telegram who’s been involved in Johnson County politics for more than 25 years, says that earning money from probation is considered a top priority for the county, while helping people grow into productive citizens by spending money on prisoners isn’t.
“I was involved when they first started the HOPE project here in Johnson County,” he said. HOPE is an anacronym for Helping Open People’s Eyes. “The initial intent when HOPE was started at the jail here was to work with the inmates, to get them to have support so that they would have a safety net when they were released. You’d have people to talk with when you got down after you got out. You know, people have no funds, of course, and they can’t get jobs, so they get down. And it worked fine. We had the law library at the jail, and the HOPE program got computers and there was a GED program, all sorts of things. But then the county administration decided they didn’t want to spend funds that way, so they cut the program to the bone, got rid of the law library and the computers. Now it’s a horrible situation. The program is still there but it’s not the same. And when we don’t work to help these kids get out of the cycle, they don’t get out of the cycle. So I guess that’s what we want.”
As many as 80-percent of the people on probation in Johnson County will wind up doing some time in the county jail. And nearly everyone with ten-year probation sentences winds up there at one time or another. “Ten years,” says De los Santos, “Almost nobody can do that, even if they change their lifestyle. You out and get drunk then go to church the next day, that’s your business if you’re not on probation. If you are and they find that alcohol in your blood, you’re sunk. And when you get put in the county jail, it might be several months before you get to see a judge. So you’re in for quite a while.” De los Santos says that when he has clients he doesn’t think are responsible enough to do a five or ten year probation he suggests they let him try to make a deal with Hanna’s office to get a year or two straight jail time. “That seems harsh, but if you get a year and do it, you’re free. If you get ten-years probation and fail a couple of piss tests, you’re going to wind up doing more than that just sitting in county.”
The problem, say other lawyers, is that Dale Hanna seems to like giving out long probation sentences. “And god help you if you turn them down,” said a prominent defense attorney, who, like several others, would not let his name be used for fear of retaliation on his future clients. “You don’t turn down a Hanna plea and take it to court. He’ll add more charges than you’ve ever seen and he’ll get in there and work that jury till they think you’re the devil and they’ll give you as long a sentence as Hanna asks for. That’s just how Johnson County works.”
A perfect example of that occurred in 2001, said Pat Humphrey, with a man named Edgar Howard Whisenant, Jr. Whisenant, from Johnson County, was the owner/operator of three Johnson County Subway Restaurants. He and his wife Tracy had two daughters, went to church regularly, and apparently had a perfect marriage. Until it began to fall apart after 17 years and they got embroiled in a bitter divorce.
On one occasion, Tracy claimed to have been badly beaten by Whisenant. The police looked into it and didn’t feel right about pursuing the issue because Whisenant had no marks on his hands or any other sign of having been in a struggle whatsoever. Some months later Tracy was shot in the thigh and claimed it occurred during a scuffle with her husband.
Though there was no evidence linking Whisenant to the gun or even placing him at the scene he was arrested and after some negotiation between his lawyer and Hanna, he was offered 5-years in a plea deal for simple assault. Whisenant refused it, claiming he was innocent. According to Humphrey, who was covering the Johnson County Court for the Cleburne Times-Review at the time, Whisenant was told that if he turned down the plea there would be additional charges filed on him. He did, there were, he was found guilty and sentenced to 35-years.
But even for those to take the plea, particularly if it involves probation, life can be miserable. One Johnson County resident currently on probation for a minor felony says: “I’m walking a tightrope with no net and I’m clumsy by nature. It’s a really eerie feeling to wake up each day with this looming dread. It seems useless to pursue any serious goals like finishing my Master’s—would an employer prefer to hire a felon with or without the advanced degree? I can’t even chaperon my children’s field trips as a felon. It seems to me that the system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep those in power honest and the rest of us safe gets a little out of whack when those in power have so much of it.”
And the power that a man like Hanna has in Johnson is so great that no one has even run against him in the last two elections. Not, I was told by several attorneys who’d entertained the idea, because he was impossible to beat, but because if they ran and lost to him, they’d never be able to get another client here as he’d take it out on them.
With so many thousands of people coming in and out of the criminal justice system, and so many of those coming out with no money or cars or work, it would make sense to have a halfway house or two in Johnson to help people adjust. Or a shelter for those who’ve lost their homes while involved in the system. Or a soup kitchen to feed them something hot. But there’s not. The Salvation Army in Cleburne gives out bagged groceries twice a week—a family may collect some once a month—and several of the churches have food banks, but there’s nowhere to get a daily meal or two. “We’d like to do that,” said a young woman working at the local Sally. “But we can’t. It’s just the politics here. No one wants to see all those poor people, or worse, have more poor people coming here if we did have one.”
A call to the local United Way produced a similar response. According to Diane Packwood, of the United Way of Johnson County, “a large part of the reason there isn’t a shelter or a halfway house is local politics. The thinking goes that if you don’t have those things the people here can say they don’t have a problem. But we do have a problem and a lot of the social service agencies recognize it.”
Packwood said that a homeless coalition has recently been formed recently to address the issue of creating a managed shelter, but admits that they’ve only had their first two meetings thus far and are a long way from actually having one.
Another thing Johnson County doesn’t have is a Juvenile Hall. It had one—it was a remodel of the initial Johnson County jail, but kept failing the state safety requirements and was said to be rife with abuse. And then, in 1989, a guard raped a teen and they shut it down. Since then, the youngsters, who range in age from 10-17 (though they only enter the juvenile system if they are 16 or younger), have been housed in Parker and now Hunt County facilities. The Director of Juvenile Services for Johnson County is Lisa Tomlinson, who oversees the 200-300 juveniles in the program at a given time. “Our kids are in for most of the same things adults are in the system for: family violence, theft, drugs, car theft. Most of our kids are 15-16. The mission of the juvenile justice system is to do what’s in the best interest of the child while also keeping the community safe. That lends itself to treating those kids individually, rather than as a group because not every kid is going to need the same things. Some need to be punished but a lot of them just need some help to get through adolescence. And we try to provide that.”
Unlike adult probation, Tomlinson says juvenile services gets money from the state as well as the county, so they can offer more counseling, help with schoolwork and follow up visits and treatment than adult probation or the jail can provide. “We’d all like more money to run our programs, but we can do most of what we feel is necessary with what we have. I think we really help a number of these kids. I would like a detention facility here in Johnson, and we’ve talked about it, but no one seems willing or able to commit the four or five million it would take to build one.”
The Hunt County facility is about two hours south of Johnson, and every youngster has to be brought back to the Johnson County Court after two and then ten days—the average stay—there. Which pulls a lot of man hours off of Sheriff Alford’s staff, already underfunded and undermanned.
While Tomlinson and Alford tread lightly when asked about the county’s priorities, Bill Miller, who has no horses in the race, cuts to the chase. “This town is building a new building for Adult Probation because theirs isn’t nice enough. But the kids? They don’t care.
Now they’ve got that scaffolding up all around the old courthouse and that’s costing the city a fortune to rent and it’s going to come back to the taxpayers in cost overruns. The general contractors have gone to the county commissioners to ask what they want done with the dome on top and the commissioners haven’t decided yet, so the county is going to pick up the tab.
“Then they closed the Mental Health, Mental Retardation (MHMR) center earlier this year and coupled that with Parker County’s, so there is nowhere for people with mental problems to go get help nearby. Do you see what I’m getting at? There’s money to let the scaffolding sit on the courthouse while the commissioners sit on their thumbs, and there is money for new probation building, but there’s no money for people with mental problems, no money for kids in trouble. That’s just wrongheaded.”
Actually, as of September, the MHMR reopened after several months of offering very limited services. But its history is one that makes many people wish it would just go away. In 1994, the financial director John Marshall Young was indicted on 112 counts of theft when it was discovered that he’d opened a number of mailboxes in the names of non-existent companies and then sent invoices for things to the clinic. Young paid them, then collected the checks and cashed them. By the time an internal audit noticed it Young had embezzled over $300,000. When indicted he fled to Las Vegas where he was discovered through a routine license plate check at motels there. He was with a 17-old girlfriend when found.
Scuttlebutt at the time suggested that he wasn’t particularly worried because he was rumored to have video tape of various county officials having sex with MHMR clients, but several people say that was nonsense. “What he did,” says Tommy Alteris, a lawyer and former judge in Johnson County who was on the MHMR board at the time, “was rent an apartment in Cleburne. Then he gutted an old television and in place of the tubes he put a video camera. But as far as I know he only took sex movies of himself and his girlfriends. I think that other thing was just a rumor, if it ever reached that stage.”
The man who discovered Young’s fraud, Bill Marschiotti (SPELLING) and took over as director of the MHMR was himself later removed when it was discovered that he was mixing funds intended for the Mental Health programs with those of the Mental Retardation programs. Though Marschiotti was never accused of personal gain the fund mixing was an indication, like the scaffolding on the courthouse that’s been there months longer than was expected, that oversight isn’t big in Johnson County. Another example is school administration expenditures.
Alden Nellis, a businessman and long time political activist in Johnson County is trying to correct that. He along with several others have begun going through Cleburne Independent School District expenditures and he’s disturbed with what he’s finding. “They’ve done things such as spend federal funds for a retreat for the achool administration at a local luxury ranch, and spent nearly $10,000 in 21 hours. The Cleburne ISD spent $300 skeet shooting recently at a ranch. They’ve spent $90 bucks apiece at Ruth Chris Steakhouse in San Antonio and then they come back and need the kids to hold a fund raiser to make up the money that they spent that should have been bought with that money initially.”
Nellis backs up his claims on the cleburnepolitics.com website, where he, his wife Micky Nellis, Theresa Blackwell and Harold Gentry have posted copies of receipts from what he’s said.
Calls to the Superintendent of the Cleburne ISD to explain the expenditures were returned with emails, but they only suggested that they didn’t understand this reporter’s request for an explaination.
“The point,” says Nellis, “is that federal funds are earmarked for the benefit of the students. And we maintain that these sorts of retreats and dining experiences are not providing a direct benefit to the students.”
R.C. ‘Mac’ McFall, commissioner for Johnson County’ Precinct 1, which includes much of Cleburne, was one of the few county officials who would speak to the Weekly. “There’s lots that could and probably should be changed about Johnson County. One is the alcohol here. For a long time we had the highest per capita DUI in the region, including Dallas and Fort Worth. Heck, we make people drive 20 miles to Rio Vista or the Tarrant part of Burleson to buy a beer. That just doesn’t make sense. Don’t have people driving all over the county trying to get a drink and then driving home drunk.
“Another thing is the juveniles. What I’d like to do is have a regional facility for juveniles that would serve three or four counties. Problem with kids, you know, is that the liability exposure is immense. They can say you done something and you’re guilty until proven innocent. It’s just an enormous responsibility.
“ But I’d like Hood, Johnson, Parker and Erath to have a facility so we wouldn’t have to transport the kids so far. And heck, they’ve already got a useable facility over in Hood. But nobody is really pushing for that because it’s not about the kids so much as it’s about money. They want to operate these facilities for profit. That just messes everything up. Makes people care about the wrong things. They care about the money and not the kids.
“But it’s all money these days. I had a boy works for me got into a fight playing soccer: he and another boy ran into each other and afterwards the boy shoved him in the back. Sort of snapped his head back. Well, that was it, the fight was on. And the school resource officer wrote him up for Public Nuisance or some such and he had to pay a $185 fine. And that’s it. Now he’s in the system. Heck, in my day you get in a scrap two teachers would separate you and sit you down and let you cool off. Then they’d say: ‘Now you’re going to go out there and shake hands.’ And that was the worst. Having to shake hands. But we did it. These days they write you up.”
Told about the woman who was charged with evading for pulling up to a lighted area rather than stopping on a dark road, McFall said that the police in Johnson County did things like that regularly and wrongfully. “I’ll tell you what. We’re having a particular problem right now with an officer in Burleson. He drives around in an unmarked car with his flashing lights in the grill. I don’t go for that at all. He’s a real officer but who can be sure of that when those lights go on behind you. I like big lights and black and whites. I want people to see the police car, not have the police try to sneak up on people. That’s just another ploy to make more money, put more people into the system.
“Heck, we have more than 5,000 people on adult probation. We might have 100 probation officers. That’s big money. But I’d like to see less people in the system, not more. You just can’t have such a percentage of people in the system. It’s broke and we ought to go about fixing it. I’ll tell you what: The system stinks. Keeping people on probation is just asking for them to get further in the system. Then they lose their car and their job and their house and then you and me and the other taxpayers got to pay for them. We’ve got to rethink what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
“It’s all about the money. My daughter is a nurse at a school out here and they darn near put a gun to her head and told her no matter how sick a kid is, you keep that kid in school until 10 AM. After that you can let them go home. But if you let them out before ten the school loses federal and state money. You see? It’s all about money, not whether a kid should be home or not.
“Generally, I’d say I’m for going back a bit to the way things were. Not having these jails run for profit and fining everybody who does the littlest thing. I don’t think that’s helping anybody, least of all the kids who need the most help.”
Of course, as county commissioner, McFall is one of a handful of people who hold the purse strings in Johnson County and could actually change things if he pushed hard enough. Regarding a halfway house or shelters, McFall said he didn’t ever remember those things even coming up for discussion.
So while McFall talks a good game, Sheriff Alford is still undermanned, and to the best of what the Weekly could discover, considering no one on the jail or medical staff at the county jail would return phone calls, the problem of having overnight nurses hasn’t been resolved either. But at least he, like Alford, are open to discussion, unlike several of the other county leaders.
And the issues under discussion are not small ones: too many people in the criminal justice system, an MHMR that has a history of mismanagement and fraud, bullying police who rarely get called on it, a juvenile system that sends kids hours away from their families, and a jail medical staff that lets people like Desiree Jamison get so ill that by the time she’s moved to the hospital she’s too ill to save.
Jacky McCaslin, a longtime local activist, summed it up this way. “Johnson County is different because while other counties have moved on and progressed, this county still does things the old way. The good old boys run the show and they run it they way they want. The way they think is, if you don’t like it, you can just leave.”