Texas Rangers Often Lackadaisical in Prisoner Death Investigations
by Matt Clarke
“The Texas Rangers are investigating.”
The words bring all the swagger of the Lonestar State’s frontier-justice history to reports of crime, lending a wild-west ring to them even today, when the state has 29 million residents, 85% of whom live in urban areas. But just how serious are the investigations by the state’s police?
The Rangers were originally formed almost 200 years ago to police the Mexican border. Today, despite their small ranks—there are just 165 of them left—they carry outsized significance to the state’s residents. In fact, they cannot be legally disbanded. See: T.G.C. § 411.024. In addition to border duties, they are also charged with investigating public corruption and deaths involving law enforcement.
Investigative writer Doug Swanson, author of a Ranger profile titled Cult of Glory, calls them “Scotland Yard with cowboy hats.”
That’s certainly the image burnished in the 1990s TV series, Walker, Texas Ranger, which neglected to mention the Rangers also were used to hunt escaped African slaves in the 19th century and massacre Tejano villagers in the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, they were recruited by Gov. Alan Shivers (D) to resist desegregation of Mansfield High School.
More recently the Rangers have been criticized for outdated techniques, like using hypnosis during criminal-case interviews. They did so 56 times in the five years between 2015 and 2020, according to statistics from the state Department of Public Safety (DPS). Texas is one of the last states to employ the controversial tactic. The state legislature passed a bill to end the practice, but Gov. Greg Abbott (R) vetoed it in January 2021.
When confronted with in-custody deaths, some states—many that flubbed investigations—have turned to outside agencies. In 2014, Wisconsin became the first state to pass a law requiring independent investigation of deaths involving police officers. An executive order issued in 2015 by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), following the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, requires the state attorney general to investigate certain in-custody deaths. Maine and Maryland also use their attorneys general to investigate in-custody fatalities. Connecticut created a state agency to do it. Colorado and Florida took measures toward independent investigations, while Washington relies on a hybrid model involving both state and local investigators. Arkansas and Illinois are considering taking steps in the same direction.
In 2017, Texas enacted a law requiring independent investigation of jail deaths. Prior to that, the Texas Rangers investigated such deaths as a matter of longstanding custom only. Georgia and North Carolina also have a similar custom of state police investigating in-custody deaths.
It is generally believed that having an outside, state-level agency investigate in-custody deaths is superior to having a law enforcement agency investigate itself, even if the investigation is conducted by an internal affairs department or inspector general.
“A Very Understandable Desire
to Protect Our Own”
“Let’s face it—if you come from the same organization, you’re going to have some level of bias, no matter how objective you try to be,” said Ashley Heiberger, a former police officer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who advises police departments on use of force. “We’re all human. There’s a very understandable desire to protect our own.”
The core assumption behind the belief that outside agencies are superior in this context is that they will conduct a more thorough investigation. But what if that is not true?
As PLN reported in 2019, news accounts revealed that DPS Deputy Director Randall Prince was the son of former Ranger Bob Prince, the director of governmental affairs for LaSalle Corrections, which operated eight Texas jails and prisons—in seven of which the Rangers were designated to conduct investigations of in-custody deaths. [See: PLN, Apr. 2019, p.46.]
A more recent investigation published in September 2021 by the New York Times examined 300 case files from in-custody death investigations conducted by the Rangers since 2015 and found a spotty record of investigation quality. The authors looked at over 6,000 pages of autopsy reports, court filings, investigative files, and police reports provided in response to public records requests. Texas was chosen because it has conducted more investigations of in-custody deaths than any other state.
Some of the investigations show high-quality police work, like Ranger Randy Garcia’s investigation into the 2017 overdose death of James Dean Davis, 42, in the LaSalle County jail, which resulted in indictments for two guards and a $1.15 million payout for Davis’ family (see below).
Other investigations seemed focused on clearing the guards no matter what, like Ranger Adam Russell’s investigation into the death of Kelli Leanne Page, 46, in a jail south of Dallas, after which no one was indicted and a lawsuit filed by her family was dismissed (see below).
The Times consulted with six veteran homicide investigators and experts on policing from six different states and shared with them the findings of its investigation. All noted that death investigations range widely in circumstances and difficulty. Further, most of the facts are often not in dispute when an officer kills someone with a firearm. The decision then falls on prosecutors to determine whether the killing was criminal.
Things get complicated when no firearm is used and there is a struggle with officers during which the person ceases breathing. A thorough investigation of that type of death requires the investigator to retrace how officers used their hands, feet, and body weight throughout the incident in order to determine whether the use of force was appropriate. The absence of that kind of tracing indicates a less-than-thorough investigation.
The Times found 29 cases in which a person ceased breathing after struggling with Texas law enforcement authorities. Prosecutors did not charge any law enforcement personnel in any of the deaths. But the Times found shortcuts, mistakes and questionable judgment calls in the investigations conducted in two-thirds of the cases, which some consultants said could indicate a lack of effort by the Rangers in those cases.
Examples include the 2019 death of Genaro Rocha in an Amarillo jail and the 2018 death of Andrew Carmona in Luling, after which an investigating Ranger conducted one or no interviews (see below).
“Giving Them a Chance
to Adjust Their Story”
The paucity of such evidence collected in some of these files is not due to a lack of facts to investigate or evidence to prove them. Rangers also often did not press for immediate interviews with the law enforcement officers involved in the deaths.
“You’re giving them a chance to adjust their story,” said former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) homicide lieutenant Adam Bercovici. “You need to be in a room with somebody. You need to look them in the eye. You need to see their body language.”
Rangers failed to interview all of the witnesses to an incident in at least 16 of the cases that the Times looked at. In five they interviewed no witnesses at all. In a dozen, the investigating Ranger never visited the scene of the struggle—another sign of “lazy investigating,” according to Rob Bub, a 33-year veteran of the LAPD.
In three of the 29 cases, the Rangers assigned important tasks to employees of the agencies under investigation. C.H. McDonald, the Ranger investigating the death of Robert Geron Miller at the Tarrant County jail, left it up to a detective in the county sheriff’s office to review video footage of the violent encounter Miller had with guards, and when McDonald investigated Coy Walker’s death in an encounter with Parker County deputies, he again showed little interest in digging beneath a deputy’s superficial alibi, latching onto a coroner’s finding that there were amphetamines in Walker’s body and apparently ignoring evidence of strangulation (see below).
Bercovici believes McDonald never paused to examine the new evidence because “even if a person had drugs in his system,” a broken hyoid and eyewitness accounts of strangulation should give an investigator pause.
“If I was running that investigation, I would step back,” said Bercovici. “That wouldn’t pass the smell test.”
But this and several similar cases apparently passed the Rangers’ smell test. One could ask why they were so unconcerned about their investigations. “I guarantee you this is not a sought-after assignment,” said Bercovici. “Nobody wants them, because 99 percent of the time it’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances. But it’s a lot of work to dot all the Is and cross the Ts.”
Another factor is that there are so few Rangers—only 165 to cover the entire state. By comparison, Houston, the state’s largest city, has 5,300 sworn police officers. So Rangers have to be generalists, jacks of all trades, investigating major crimes, political corruption, and in-custody deaths, whereas most police departments have detectives specializing in homicide, or robbery, or burglary, or drug crimes. Unfortunately, the lack of specialized training may lead to a lack of quality in specialized investigations. A review of some of the recent in-custody deaths investigated by Rangers that the New York Times studied provides a glimpse into the problem.
Robert Miller, Tarrant County Jail – Aug. 2019: Ranger McDonald, who investigated the death of 38-year-old Miller at the Tarrant County jail, had a detective who works for the county sheriff’s office review video footage of the violent encounter that erupted between Miller and jail guards. Had he reviewed it himself, he would have watched Miller wrestle with them and sustain head injuries when they threw him to the floor. He would have heard Miller complain of chest pain soon thereafter, only to have deputies pepper-spray him before they then dragged him facedown to another cell, where a different guard saw him splayed out on the floor and splashed toilet water onto his face. Miller stopped breathing 12 minutes later.
But Ranger McDonald instead accepted the assessment of the sheriff’s department detective that guards did not engage in any “suspicious or criminal behavior.” The Rangers closed the case about nine months later, after a medical examiner ruled Miller died of a sickle-cell crisis. Federal claims in a lawsuit filed by Miller’s wife after his death were dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on February 11, 2022, leaving only her state claims to be pursued in state court. See: Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24707 (N.D. Tex.).
Genaro Rocha II, Potter County Jail – Aug. 2019: The 47-year-old Rocha died in the jail in Amarillo after guards left him alone and bound in a harness in a cell because they said he kicked them. Stunningly, the investigating Ranger recorded no interviews in his file.
No lawsuit has yet been filed over Rocha’s death.
Kelli Page, Coryell County Jail – Oct. 2017: When Ranger Adam Russell investigated 46-year-old Page’s death in the jail south of Dallas, he learned she had struggled with two guards after banging on her cell door with a hairbrush. One jailer threw her down onto the floor and punched her in the face, while the other, a 390-pound trainee, pinned her down until she was no longer breathing.
Yet six hours after he began his review, Russell determined the guards were not at fault for the death. Even after an autopsy showed the cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation, Russell procured a second opinion from a retired chief medical examiner, who offered that heart disease might have been a contributing cause. Russell later testified that the initial autopsy was a “rush to judgment” and “something inside Kelli” killed her.
The guards at the jail may have had “something inside” them, evidenced by a history of misconduct, including one who caused a prisoner’s hospitalization by putting pepper-spray in his food. Also, the day before she died, Page angered one of the guards by splashing him with cleaning solution through the food slot of her cell. She was given a black eye when guards restrained her. Yet none of this was mentioned in Russell’s report, which also had no mention of any witness interviews.
Oddly, surveillance cameras recorded video, but no audio, of Page’s fatal encounter with guards. In another oddity, none of the medical examiners involved in Page’s autopsy was called as a witness in the hearing about her death. The chief pathologist asked for permission to speak to the Times, but that request was denied. He then released a brief statement that the pathologists were standing by their finding of homicide by mechanical strangulation.
Page was a mother of five and had long battled episodes of depression by using drugs. Her family said it had the impression her case was being treated as “just another addict who died in jail.”
“She’s not just her police record, but so many people look at it that way,” said Tiffany Gruwell, one of Page’s daughters. “I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions about what happened.”
In a lawsuit filed by her parents over her death, summary judgment was granted to the defendants on February 25, 2020. See: Fairchild v. Coryell Cty., USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 6:19-cv-00029. An appeal of that decision is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. See: Fairchild v. Coryell Cty., USCA (5th Cir.).
James Davis, LaSalle County Jail – July 2017: This was the rare investigation that the Times’ consultants applauded, which Ranger Randy Garcia conducted into the 42-year-old Davis’ 2017 overdose death in the LaSalle County jail. He interviewed over a dozen witnesses and reviewed video and audio recordings before meticulously documenting the neglect of guards who mocked Davis as he cried out for help while lying on his cell’s floor. Garcia then secured indictments against two guards for tampering with government records, while the county settled a lawsuit filed by the victim’s estate for $1,150,000—with 75% of that amount covered by the county’s liability insurer, the Texas Association of Counties—after the county’s motion to dismiss was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in June 2020. See: Davis v. La Salle Cty., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102664 (W.D. Tex.); and Davis v. La Salle Cty., USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 5-19-CV-00746.
Andrew Carmona, Luling – Jun. 2018: The Ranger investigating the 36-year-old’s 2018 death—while an officer held him by the head and neck in the front yard of a house—waited 11 days to start his investigation and never visited the scene of the struggle, a sign of laziness, according to the Times’ consultants. That same Ranger eventually conducted a single interview—with a toxicologist.
No suit has been filed over the death.
Michael Cassel, Tyler – Jun. 2016: In what looks like an overt display of bias, the Ranger investigating the 41-year-old’s 2016 death in Tyler County provided video footage of his fatal struggle with sheriff’s deputies to their defense attorney. On the video, Cassel could be heard complaining that he could not breathe before he lost consciousness.
No suit has been filed over his death, either.
Coy Walker, Parker County – May 2015: The 41-year-old Walker had been struggling with mental illness and drug abuse and was in a wild panic when he showed up at his parents’ house in Parker County in 2015. They called the sheriff’s office, asking for help in calming their son.
The first responding officer tasered him and was struggling to get him into handcuffs when her backup, Cpl. Ethan Stark, arrived. Stark charged into the house, leapt atop of Walker, put a knee on his neck and punched him in the face. He choked Walker “with both hands,” cursed at him, and told him to obey orders before he finally realized that Walker was no longer breathing.
The investigating Ranger was again McDonald. He interviewed the deputies, dutifully recording that they said Stark’s hand slipped and he “accidentally” grasped Walker’s throat. However, an autopsy showed Walker’s hyoid was broken, a sign of strangulation, not casual contact. Still the autopsy report concluded that Walker suffered “sudden death during physical restraint with neck injury and methamphetamine intoxication,” which is what McDonald shared with a grand jury that then, unsurprisingly, issued no indictments against the deputies involved.
Worse for Walker’s bereaved parents, their suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas was dismissed in favor of defendants, including the county, on June 1, 2017. See: Walker v. Parker Cty., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83726 (N.D. Tex.) .
Sources: Dallas Morning News, KENS, New York Times
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Related legal cases
Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty. Sheriff’s Office
|Cite||2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24707 (N.D. Tex.)|
Fairchild v. Coryell Cty.
|Cite||USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 6:19-cv-00029|
Davis v. La Salle Cty.
|Cite||2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102664 (W.D. Tex.)|