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Red River Justice

In an East Texas county known for corrupt law enforcement, Mark Lesher fought the justice system—until it came for him too.
by Published on
PHOTOS BY PATRICK MICHELS
East Texas lawyer Mark Lesher says he and his wife were targeted by law enforcement for stirring up trouble in Red River County.

The law caught up with Rhonda Lesher on a quiet Monday afternoon in April 2008. She was doing the books at Unique Touch, the hair salon and day spa she owned in the small northeast Texas town of Clarksville. She didn’t take appointments on Mondays, so the cutting stations, blow dryers and massage tables were empty when the deputies walked in.

The officers had a warrant for her arrest, but wouldn’t explain the charges. They promised more details at the sheriff’s office, and Rhonda wondered why they hadn’t just asked her to drop by. She would have walked the five blocks. They let Rhonda make a call, so she picked up a phone on the back wall and dialed her husband’s Clarksville law office. Mark wasn’t always good about answering his phone, but she knew his assistant Kenny Mitchell would be there.

“Kenny, I’m here at the shop, and I’m getting arrested.”

“For what?”

“Hell, I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it’s that crap on the Internet.” Call Mark, she told him, and hung up.

Rhonda followed the deputies out to the street fronting the town square. She knew her arrest would soon be big gossip. She’d been a pretty teenager in the late 1970s at Clarksville High, and some folks still whispered about her like they had in the high school halls. Rhonda, like many who grew up in town, remained an object of fascination into adulthood. Gossip is a popular way to fill time in Red River County, especially for those who can’t find jobs. Some county residents work at the Campbell Soup factory in Paris, 40 minutes to the west, in the neighboring county. There is a hospital in Red River, ranch land, and not much else.

People are fleeing Red River County, seeking success elsewhere. The county seat of Clarksville, population 3,300, has shrunk by a quarter over the past 20 years. More leave every year, and the empty buildings stand there and age. Like the rusting trailers and truck parts in yards on the edge of town, it’s just easier to leave them.

Certain relics are accorded higher honors. A hanging tree still presides over the main cemetery, marked by a plaque from the Clarksville High School Junior League. A statue in the town square of Confederate Col. John C. Burks faces northwest, according to local lore, because Burks is keeping watch over the historically black section of town.

Clarksville remains deeply segregated. The town is majority black today, but county law enforcement is almost completely white. Some residents say the Red River County justice system saves its harshest treatment for the black community. It got so bad decades ago that a federal judge had to set up a civil rights commission just for Red River County. By some accounts, justice in Red River hasn’t gotten much better since.

“Instead of hanging blacks from trees, nowadays they do it in the court system,” says Fred Stovall, former pastor of a black church in Detroit, Texas, west of Clarksville. He says most people in the black community there don’t trust the police—but they’re terrified to draw attention to themselves. “Somebody’s got to say something or it’s gonna be all of us in the courtrooms,” he says.

Mark Lesher said something. He’d spent a decade fighting the Red River County justice system, until they came for him too. When his wife was being arrested that Monday afternoon in 2008, Mark Lesher was an hour away, at his other office in Texarkana. After he got his assistant’s call, Mark got into his silver Chevrolet truck and headed west to bail Rhonda out, like he’d done for countless clients before. He didn’t get far. Another sheriff’s deputy was waiting for Mark on Highway 82 inside the Red River County line. He cuffed Mark’s hands behind his back—so tightly his wrists bled when the cuffs came off—and stowed him in his cruiser. The deputies searched his truck while rubberneckers on the highway slowed down for a better look. Stuck in the back seat with the air conditioning off, Mark began to sweat.

Mark was a defense attorney, but, more accurately, he was a professional agitator. As a trial lawyer, Lesher prided himself on “defending the little guy.” He looked for every chance to challenge the county establishment, gambling on lawsuits against the government and the hospital, where he could score a cut of a big award. Raised in the Panhandle, Lesher had come to East Texas in the early 1970s to work in the Texarkana district attorney’s office. Lesher says the D.A. at the time, Lynn Cooksey, was wasting money on a personal vendetta against the sheriff and neglecting good cases. Lesher left for private practice and led a successful movement to vote Cooksey out of office. In 1996, Lesher moved to a ranch in Red River County, bought some cattle, opened a second office just off the Clarksville town square, and soon met and married Rhonda. He had landed in another bubble of local power run wild. Emboldened by success in Texarkana, he started speaking out. “I thought I could turn Red River County around,” he says, “just like I did in Bowie County.” He also made enemies. “Because I will sue people, because I will represent the poor people, I get identified as the guy that’s got the black hat.”

When Mark and Rhonda both arrived at the county jail, they learned they were facing sexual assault charges. A county grand jury had secretly indicted them without ever hearing testimony from Mark or Rhonda. A few months later, they were indicted again on enhanced charges of aggravated sexual assault, a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison. The allegations were lurid: Prosecutors told of homemade drugs, sex parties, and a bizarre rape scenario. Mark had spent a decade airing the county’s secrets in court. Now it looked like the law in Red River County might have the last say.

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Even in high school
in the early 1980s, Val Varley couldn’t lose. With his thick mop of brown hair, he was voted class favorite and most handsome. He was an honors student and starting quarterback for the Clarksville Tigers. After law school at Texas Tech University, Varley returned to find his hometown had turned against its county attorney, who refused to prosecute a principal accused of stealing from the high school. Varley seized the moment and easily unseated the incumbent.

He took office in 2001, and felt right at home in the system. Most of his cases were fast-tracked to probation, a neat way to ensure a win. Mark Lesher, who quickly became Varley’s nemesis, says the prosecutor uses any dirt he can find to scare people into accepting probation pleas, obligating them to pay fees to the county for years. “It’s a sad, sad situation with a lot of people who are poor—and they’re mainly minorities,” Lesher says.

Lesher also says that Varley and county judges issue warrants based on lazy police work—like the “sneak and peak” [sic] warrant one constable acquired in 2005. The constable managed to misspell the word even though the man signing off on the warrant was County Judge Powell Peek. Sneak-and-peek warrants were created under the Patriot Act for federal anti-terrorism and drug investigations. This one was issued to check out a rumor that someone had a stolen truck in their yard.

Lesher has represented about a dozen clients, nearly all of them black, facing serious time for drug offenses based on the testimony of a confidential informant known as “CI002.” One of Lesher’s clients, Elbert Lee Doolittle, got life in prison for dealing meth. Lesher appealed the verdict, armed with a signed affidavit from the informant CIOO2 claiming he lied in his testimony against Doolittle. Varley countered with an affidavit of his own from the same informant, claiming he’d been pressured into recanting and had originally told the truth. Doolittle, who is African-American, lost his appeal and is serving a life sentence. Cases like that are why people like Pastor Stovall and Mark Lesher say that Red River County seems especially hostile to the black community.

Alan Bean, who runs the civil rights group Friends of Justice, says Red River County is one of many counties in Texas that don’t have the economic base to function the way county governments are supposed to. When someone with big aspirations takes office in a place like that, Bean says, “It can be kind of a toxic mix. They’re not necessarily very evil people, but the circumstances do not bring out the best of their character.”

The Red River County justice system has long had problems. Thirty years ago, following a pair of notorious abuses by police—the murder of an unarmed teenager and the burning of a lawyer’s office—federal District Judge William Wayne Justice created a five-member public review board specifically to vet officers hired by the county and protect the rights of suspects in custody. The board includes Clarksville’s chief of police and the Red River County sheriff, and Lesher says it’s been dormant for years.

Today, the narrow flat stretch between the Red River and the slow, murky Sulphur River may be a mostly forgotten corner of the state, but in some ways, it was part of storied Texas history. When Sam Houston and Davy Crockett crossed into the state, they tied their boats to a stump in Red River County. It was cotton country, and more recently a manufacturing center. But as the jobs went overseas, the exodus to urban centers quickened. Walmart arrived and closed the shops on the square. A few years ago, Walmart left too.

Brandon Harbison became Clarksville’s police chief in 2008. “When I took over, I had eight or nine patrol officers, and I’m down to five,” he says. He says local unease with law enforcement goes back decades, rooted in scandals involving people long dead. “There’s a trust issue there. I don’t know how to get past it,” Harbison says. “I just feel like this area is in the Dark Ages compared to everybody else.”

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The Leshers had already heard
the bizarre rumors about them, so it was no surprise that their arrests resulted from a complaint by a woman named Shannon Coyel.

Shannon had run off with Red McCarver, her husband’s ranch hand, in the summer of 2007. She told her family that her husband Jerry was dangerous, abusive and deviant, and court records detail her allegations against him: That Jerry would tell her 13-year-old daughter Melissa to massage her breasts each day to make them grow; that her 12-year-old son Donnie caught Jerry watching Melissa have sex with her boyfriend; that Jerry brought men to have sex with Shannon so he could watch. (Both children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.)

Jerry Coyel is still an imposing presence at 65, tall and solidly built. He owns Apache Auto Works near Fort Worth, one of the biggest salvage yards in the state.

Shannon knew Jerry was a powerful man in Red River County, and he proved it again when she left. He filed for divorce and then secured temporary custody of her children, even though he wasn’t their biological father. Jerry told police that Shannon beat her daughter with a belt, and Shannon was arrested for child endangerment. McCarver was arrested the same day for possession of marijuana and dynamite. On the phone with Jerry, Shannon put her ex-husband on speakerphone, and her stepmom Sharla Woods heard him say, “I am God. I can do anything.”

Mark Lesher knew the Coyel family because he’d represented Jerry in a medical malpractice suit in 2006. In the summer of 2007, Mark and Rhonda agreed to help Shannon divorce Jerry and get her daughter back. Shannon and McCarver spent two nights at the Leshers’ ranch house in late July, then moved into a trailer on their land. Mark found lawyers for Shannon, typed up her allegations against Jerry, and Shannon signed every page. He sent Shannon to get drug-tested, to prove to the courts that she was clean. (She passed.) Rhonda testified on Shannon’s behalf in her custody hearing.

Then, on Labor Day weekend 2007, Shannon went back to Jerry. A powerful man in Red River County can get what he wants. “There was nothing she could do,” Woods says. “It took us awhile to figure that out. You can’t fight the cops, and you can’t fight judges.”

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As with so many others
in Red River County, Vergil Richardson’s trouble started without a knock on the door.

It was around 10:30 at night, and he and his half-brother Kevin Calloway were playing dominoes at the dining room table. Vergil grew up in Clarksville, played high school basketball there and got his start coaching a year after he graduated. He’d just taken over as head coach of the Liberty-Eylau High School basketball team in Texarkana. He owned the house they were sitting in, and Calloway rented it from him.

The windows and front door were open and the screen door was shut, but in one violent instant, men from four separate law enforcement agencies reduced it to scraps on the floor. They burst into the house, most wearing masks over their faces. Some wore helmets with the visors down. They threw Vergil and Calloway to the floor.

The officers rounded up Vergil’s cousin and two nephews from around the house and cuffed them all. The officers removed their masks and helmets. (After all the excitement, one would forget his helmet on the floor when he left.) Vergil looked around at his bound family and wondered what was going on.

It was the night of November 17, 2007, the maiden voyage of the Red River County Narcotics Special Response Team. The group was an unofficial successor to a regional task force that had disbanded two years earlier, and at first it had seemed a great success. Earlier that day, Deputy Sheriff Robert Bridges was with an informant who bought three ounces of marijuana from Calloway outside the house, and now that drug buy had led them to seven suspected drug dealers. (Vergil’s brother Mark was sitting in a parked car with a friend when the raid began. They were both arrested as well.) The police found marijuana in the pockets of Calloway and Vergil’s nephew Jermicole Richardson, a bag of powdered cocaine between cushions of the couch, and, locked in a shed behind the house, more cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

But there were problems. The police report said the raid began at “approximately” 10:30 p.m., but the warrant was signed at 10:49. Vergil doesn’t believe the officers bothered to bring it with them—he says he asked Sheriff Terry Reed three times to see the warrant before Reed pulled a piece of paper the size of a receipt from his pocket, then marched them out before Vergil could read it. Lab reports showed the bag found in the couch, supposedly filled with five grams of cocaine, tested negative—whatever was in the bag, it wasn’t drugs. Perhaps strangest of all, County Attorney Val Varley had come along on the raid, wearing body armor and carrying a rifle. It might have made for a fun night on the town, but it made Varley a participant, meaning he couldn’t prosecute the cases.

The Richardsons hired Texarkana lawyer Clyde Lee to defend them in court. Sensing what a strange case he had, Lee enlisted help from the one lawyer in Clarksville he knew wouldn’t be shy about taking on the county: Mark Lesher.

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In spring 2008,
the Clarksville forum on Topix.com—the place for anonymous small-town rumormongering—was lighting up with complaints about Mark’s practice: frivolous lawsuits, low-class clients. But on April 4, a new story appeared about an unnamed woman who had lived with Mark and Rhonda for a time:

“The Leschers [sic] talked her into moving to thier [sic] property.

“put her and her 11-year-old son in a trailer on the property.

“Started giving her large doses of drugs.

[...]

“This lady was subjected to sexual confrontations by Mark and His wife ….

[...]

“The above is a matter of testimony in a court……Watch the News it will be comming [sic] out real soon and other matters concerning MR. MARK LESCHER, [sic] ATTY.”

Comments about this new scandal grew to a flood, thousands of them, lascivious and juvenile, and about Rhonda too. “Packages from Rhondas ‘UNIQUE TOUCH’! Free ‘BLOW JOB’ or ‘ORAL DOUCHE’ with first visit!” “You get throwed, blowed, bit, sucked, Herpies, and your hair done all at the same place, ‘YUCK’!!!!!!!!”

A few weeks later, Shannon Coyel told a grand jury all about the nightmare she says she endured at the Leshers’ place eight months earlier. Red McCarver had introduced her to meth and marijuana, she told them, but Mark Lesher was the real kingpin, selling pot to bigshots like country singer Ray Price, and even manufacturing big white “Dr. Feel Good pills.” They were more addictive than meth, Shannon said, and totally undetectable by the drug tests she’d taken that summer.

On the night of July 26 Shannon had a migraine, she told the grand jury, and when she complained, Mark gave her a new kind of pill. It made her a little woozy.

She claimed she woke up naked in her bed a few hours later, with Rhonda Lesher performing oral sex on her as Mark and Red stood naked in the corner, masturbating. She tried to scream and kick, but couldn’t, she told the grand jury. She was immobilized by the drug. She said Rhonda got up and Mark came over and raped her, then let Red rape her, too.

Lynn LaRowe covered the case for the Texarkana Gazette, and says Shannon’s story didn’t sit right with her. “I just couldn’t wrap my mind around them being guilty. It just didn’t seem possible,” LaRowe says. “She had so many reasons to fabricate this whole thing, and Jerry Coyel was obviously furious with Mark and Rhonda.”

Though she knew what the town was saying about her, working at her salon gave Rhonda a chance to profess her innocence each day. “Had I stopped right then, had I quit going to Rotary right then, had I quit the historical society, got off the board right then, then everybody would’ve said, ‘I bet she’s hiding something.’”

Rhonda even gave a speech to the Rotary Club, with Varley, who was also a member, in the room. “The role of a D.A. is to see that justice is served, not to let the office be used as a tool of revenge,” she said. “We as citizens of Red River County need to stop being so accepting of the criminal system that has been, and is being, used to solve personal issues and vendettas.”

“I was reprimanded the following Monday,” Rhonda says. “I was told it was not a ‘political venue.’”

Red McCarver spent 90 days in jail after being arrested for the sexual assault, an unlucky bit player in the Lesher-Varley feud. McCarver says Varley offered him a deal if he’d testify against Mark and Rhonda, but he wouldn’t take it—no way would he admit to the things Shannon described.

The Leshers got the case removed to Collin County, two hours west of Clarksville, and Mark, Rhonda and Red stood trial together in January 2009.

Shannon’s two-day testimony began with her description of the rape, then the summer she spent high and held hostage on the Leshers’ ranch. The allegations she’d made against Jerry were lies that Mark dreamed up, she said, and she was too drugged to know better or to fight. Mark was jealous of Jerry’s money, she said, and determined to take it from him.

But inconsistencies in her story surfaced during cross-examination. Shannon said the phone line was dead at the ranch so she couldn’t call out, but the Leshers had records showing their phones were working. She said she’d been drugged and unable to leave after the rape, but Shannon’s credit card statement showed a charge from Bealls the next day.

Varley admitted it looked pretty ugly. “That was one of the best cross-examinations, I’ll just say, I’ve ever seen to de-gut a witness,” he said. But he gave Shannon one last shot on redirect:

“Did you ever lie about the sexual assault in this case?”

“No, I did not.”

In his closing argument, Varley promised still more juicy details. “There’s people out here expecting them to get away with it, but I’m going to ask y’all to do the unexpected, and go back and find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “And then after that, with one witness, I’ll let y’all hear the rest of the story on the punishment phase.” Like another whisper in the Walmart aisle, Varley dangled the real scoop just out of reach, hoping the jury couldn’t resist.

It took jury members 20 minutes to decide they didn’t need to hear the rest, that Mark, Rhonda and Red weren’t guilty. The now-cleared defendants celebrated the verdict that night at a nearby steakhouse, with friends and supporters around the table. Rhonda hung a banner— “NOT GUILTY”—across the front of her salon, and Mark got to work expunging their records.

But the comments on Topix kept coming, and the whispers didn’t quit. Mark says he’s lost business because, even after the verdict, it all looks so strange when you Google his name. “Even though it was stated from the get-go, ‘You’re innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’…that damn verdict does not say innocent … Until you’re in the criminal justice system, you don’t really realize what the difference is between not guilty and innocent.”

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Vergil Richardson figured
it was good news that Calloway, his half-brother, pleaded guilty to the drug charges. After all, Calloway was the one who’d sold drugs to the police, and the only one with a key to the shed where police found more drugs. With Varley off the case, Judge John Miller appointed Nicole Habersang, a special prosecutor from the Texas Attorney General’s office, who cut a deal with Calloway and recommended dropping the charges against the rest of them.

But then Judge Miller heard about Lesher’s latest screw-you to the county, a civil rights suit against all the county officials who took part in the Richardson raid, the City of Clarksville, and Red River County. So Judge Miller declined to drop the charges against the Richardsons. Vergil’s lawyer Clyde Lee told him that the judge called with an offer: get Lesher to drop the civil suit and Judge Miller would drop the criminal charges.

Vergil was scared, and though he wouldn’t drop the suit, he spent months in his car, driving from Mississippi to Dallas, staying with family along the way. He’d lost his job after he was arrested. He slipped into deep depression.

In October 2010, nearly three years after the raid, a visiting judge finally dropped the charges against the Richardsons. Mark and Vergil’s lawsuit is scheduled for trial this fall. “I want to prove to everyone that they were wrong, because you know there are people out there thinking—no matter how the charges were dismissed, they still think I’m a drug dealer,” Vergil says.

Liberty-Eylau lost in the regional finals the season after his arrest, without him on its bench. With the arrest still on his record, he says, no school will hire him. “I want them all to go to jail,” he says. “They destroyed my life. They destroyed my reputation. They did too much for me to let go.”

Stovall, the pastor from Detroit, organized a rally for Vergil and his family on the county courthouse lawn and is still working to bring national attention to the Richardsons’ case. But it can be hard to get attention from outside the county, because people are so accustomed to strange stories from East Texas. “It’s just like you’re behind the Pine Curtain,” Rhonda says.


Two days before Christmas
2010, Rhonda Lesher closed her salon and put the building up for sale. She wanted to be done with the Clarksville gossip. “When I walked away from all this, it was like a curtain closed,” she says, standing on her old shop floor.

Mark and Rhonda also sold their ranch and cattle to pay their lawyers and bought a house outside the county, near Mount Pleasant. Mark has an office on Mount Pleasant’s town square, looking out on the courthouse. Rhonda does the books for him two days a week, then goes back to work in her garden.

From Mount Pleasant, they have waged holy war on those they feel have wronged them back in Red River County. They pursued perjury charges against Shannon. They filed a malicious prosecution suit against Shannon, Jerry and Varley. They gathered 190 signatures on a petition to remove Varley from office. (Some in the county blame Varley for the $250,000 he spent unsuccessfully prosecuting the Leshers.)

Mark says people have asked him why he continues to obsess over the ordeal, why he’d spend more money on lawyers long after he and his wife have been cleared. “I’m not going to let it drop, because we didn’t have a damn thing to do with it,” he says. His cause now is vengeance, and this is his best shot at making them pay. Rhonda blames Varley most of all. “He is vicious. He’s evil,” she says. “We’re not the only people he’s ruined. We’re just the most prominent.”

The Leshers filed a defamation suit in Tarrant County against 178 anonymous commenters on the Topix boards, and Topix agreed to identify a few of the most prolific offenders. They turned out to be computers at Jerry Coyel’s salvage yard. One day shy of the four-year anniversary of the Leshers’ arrest, a jury awarded them $13.8 million from Jerry and Shannon Coyel—the largest cyber defamation award in U.S. history. Mark and Rhonda were national news, even being interviewed on CNN. But Rhonda says the biggest thrill was reading about their win in the Clarksville Times.

But then in mid-June, a Tarrant County district judge threw out the award. She didn’t give a reason, but the Coyels’ attorney had argued that there was no evidence to tie the Coyels to the posts, or that the Leshers suffered mental anguish.

Now the Leshers are planning their appeal. Meanwhile, Mark continues to represent clients mistreated in Red River County. In May, he represented a black man pulled over by Terry Reed—the former sheriff who’s now a Clarksville police lieutenant—for failing to signal before turning. Reed told the man he’d gotten a tip there were drugs in the car. Reed searched it and arrested the man, who spent a night in jail even though the search for drugs came up empty. The man was sure he’d signaled before turning, too, and he hired Lesher to take his case before a jury. It didn’t take the jury long to let him off the hook.

“They were there for four minutes,” Lesher says. “And I mean, everybody’s pissed. Terry Reed’s pissed, the judge is pissed, all the cops are pissed. ‘Here comes that fuckin’ Lesher again.’”

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

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