Sheriff, Interrupted

After years of police misconduct, voters in Chambers County polish off the top brass

It’s the night of the 2004 primary runoff elections, Tuesday, April 13, and Chambers County Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer, Jr. stands in his office explaining the subtleties of grenade launchers. About two-and-a-half years ago, Kreuzer wrote to the Federal Surplus Property Program and requested 34 semi-automatic rifles and four shoulder-fired grenade launchers. The sheriff never got the firearms. But he still has the letter documenting his request. Now he’s clutching it in one hand and chopping at it with the other. “We wouldn’t have been shooting grenades with them,” says Kreuzer, a tall, lanky man with thinning hair and glassy blue eyes. “We would have been shooting tear gas.”

It’s an important distinction—at least, to Kreuzer.

When local elected officials learned of the weapons request, they balked. Grenades or just tear gas, there was no way they wanted Kreuzer’s gang of gung-ho deputies wielding any additional firepower. There were already enough lawsuits ricocheting around the county.

The sheriff’s office and county jail sit across from the courthouse in Anahuac, a town of about 2,200 people. The local meat market advertises alligator for $6.99 a pound. Across the street, the confederate flag flies high above the Gator’s Motel. Anahuac is the county seat of Chambers County, 600 square miles of mostly low-lying land stretching from the outskirts of Houston to the coasts of Galveston Bay. Small towns like Anahuac are scattered throughout Chambers, most surrounded by soggy patches of swampland and pasture—fertile ground for bird watchers, rice farmers, and police malfeasance.

Kreuzer, who is 51, has lived in and around Anahuac for most of his life. Four years ago, he was voted into office as sheriff. About five minutes into his interview with the Observer, he learns the voters have turned him out, when an employee brings him the news. In the day’s runoff election, fellow Republican Hugh Sigers, a retired police officer from Baytown, defeated Kreuzer by roughly 150 votes.

By this slim margin, the voters of Chambers County narrowly avoided four more years of calamitous leadership in their sheriff’s department. Kreuzer’s tumultuous reign provides the entire state with a case study of what can go wrong when deputies are hired and fired by a newly elected sheriff based largely on political loyalties rather than on personal integrity and job performance. There are no checks and balances in place to ensure the quality of the new personnel. Overnight, a sheriff can stack a department with second-rate cronies and arm them with high-powered guns.

Maybe it was the flap over the grenade launchers that cost Kreuzer the election, as he seems to believe. Others could point to his chief deputy’s recent conviction for perjury, or the accusations of racism and civil rights violations, or the sex scandals involving departmental staff. But for the officials charged with overseeing the county budget, it could well have been the skyrocketing legal costs. The year before Kreuzer took over as sheriff, Chambers County paid $26,314 for lawsuits involving law enforcement liability. In 2003, they paid $338,173.

But tonight Kreuzer can’t get past the “faction” of adversaries who jammed up his grenade launchers. “It was a complete mischaracterization,” says Kreuzer of the ordeal. “My whole three years in office has been a mischaracterization.”

Kreuzer had been promising the voters of Chambers County bigger guns since he first ran for sheriff in 2000. At the time, Kreuzer was working for the Anahuac public school system, managing the bus barn. In his spare time, he volunteered as the chief of the fire department and as a reserve deputy, first at the sheriff’s office and later at a school in Liberty County. Law enforcement had been Kreuzer’s hobby all his life, never his full-time job. But in the summer of 2000, he saw an opportunity.

After eight years in office, the incumbent sheriff had decided to retire. His chief deputy, Wesley King, was running to replace him. In terms of experience, King had every advantage over Kreuzer. King was a veteran cop who had helped run the sheriff’s office for years. He had the blessings of the outgoing sheriff and many supporters throughout the county. But Kreuzer saw King’s major vulnerability: He was running on the wrong side of the ticket.

For as long as anyone can remember, the sheriffs in Chambers County had always been Democrats. But in 2000, all of Chambers County was swinging toward the GOP. When the general election rolled around, the Republicans steamrolled the Democrats up and down the ticket. Chambers County residents turned out in droves to support George W. Bush, who received 69 percent of the vote. Kreuzer rode the Republican groundswell right into office.

Upon taking over in January 2001, Kreuzer upended the department. Many of the deputies and jailors were loyal to the former sheriff and had publicly supported King during the election. Kreuzer got rid of them en masse, including experienced officers in key positions. The purge left Kreuzer scrambling to fill the resulting vacancies. He needed to hire more than 70 employees in under a month.

Looking back, Kreuzer admits that he made some bad choices. “We had a rocky road with personnel for a while,” says Kreuzer. It’s about as close as the soon-to-be ex-sheriff will come to apologizing for what was about to transpire.

In his first big hire, Kreuzer chose Dearl Hardy to be his chief deputy. About a year earlier, Hardy had been let go from the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force amid allegations of misconduct. Hardy allegedly had been caught using his undercover identity to rent furniture because he couldn’t get the credit using his real name. (Hardy could not be reached for comment. According to his attorney, Greg Cagle, the former chief deputy is not speaking with the media.)

Since leaving the task force, Hardy had been working as a police officer at the same school for troubled teenagers where Kreuzer was volunteering as a reserve deputy. There the two men had bonded over a common cause: pumping up law enforcement in Chambers County.

Throughout the campaign, Kreuzer had criticized the sheriff’s office for being too soft on criminals and had promised a more “pro-active” approach if elected. Kreuzer recognized that Hardy was the man for the job. He was young and aggressive, tough and unyielding—the kind of guy who would enjoy patrolling with a grenade launcher strapped to his shoulder.

Shortly after taking over, Kreuzer and Hardy held a meeting to explain the new approach to the rest of the officers. According to several witnesses, Hardy raised his badge in the air and told everyone in the room, “This gives you the right to do anything you want. This makes you like God.”

Kreuzer wanted to rejuvenate the night patrols. So early in 2001 he assigned a cadre of young deputies to make the midnight rounds under the watchful eye of an experienced patrolman named Jack Kelley.

A few weeks later, Kelley resigned from the department, disgusted with the tactics of his fellow officers. According to a sworn statement, which Kelley later provided to prosecutors, Kreuzer’s pro-active mandate had degenerated into something else: a reckless crackdown on the black residents of the county.

“I am personally aware of numerous instances where the night patrol deputies exercised excessive force, made arrests and/or detentions without probable cause, made improper felony takedowns and harassed the black residents of the Canal and Hankamer and the Spikes area,” Kelley recounted in the affidavit.

In the spring of 2001, a group of black residents assembled in Anahuac to discuss the danger posed by the sheriff’s deputies. After the meeting, more than a dozen participants submitted written complaints to the sheriff about the harassment. Some said they had been stopped and interrogated by officers for no reason. Others described how they had been ridiculed, intimidated, and bullied. “Someone needs to investigate,” wrote one woman. “Before someone gets killed.”

Several of the more dire allegations revolved around the multiple arrests of Vernon Coates.

In February 2001, Coates, a 45-year-old welder, saw some officers at the end of his street in Anahuac. Worried that the deputies might be harassing his son, who is deaf and mute, Coates jumped in his car and raced to the scene, inadvertently running a stop sign en route. A deputy promptly arrested Coates for the traffic violation and placed him in handcuffs.

According to one witness, another deputy then began hitting Coates on the head with a blunt object. The officers eventually took Coates to the Anahuac jail where they charged him with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and making a “terroristic threat” for allegedly menacing an officer.

The next day, Coates filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the FBI in Texas City.

A few weeks later, with an FBI investigation gathering momentum, Coates had another run-in with the sheriff’s deputies. Coates was outside of Duke’s Place, a local bar, when several cop cars pulled into the parking lot. Coates panicked. He gunned the engine of his pick-up truck and peeled out of the lot. (The officers later claimed that Coates swerved in their direction, striking a deputy’s thumb—a charge that Coates and several other witnesses denied).

The deputies pursued the fleeing truck. Coates ignored the flashing lights and raced home, a few blocks away. He parked the truck, jumped out, and ran inside.

A few minutes later, with deputies surrounding the house, Coates surrendered. He walked outside with his hands in the air. A pack of officers surrounded him, took him to the ground, and placed him in handcuffs. Then, in the words of one witness, they began “kicking him and hitting him in the face.”

Afterward, officers took Coates to the Bayside Community Hospital emergency room for treatment. There, a hospital employee named Thessa West says she witnessed how the officers were handling Coates.

“I looked at the monitor to the closed circuit camera and saw the deputies slam Vernon Coates’ face into the locked emergency room door,” West stated in a sworn affidavit, later provided to prosecutors. “I also heard a deputy talking on a cell phone outside the emergency room door and heard him say, ‘I am so hyped up, I don’t know what to do. I have not had this much fun in a long time.'”

Six months later, deputies from the sheriff’s department arrested Coates again. This time, they pulled Coates over for a broken brake light and found that he was driving on a suspended license. The officers asked him if he had been drinking. He admitted to having had a couple beers earlier but claimed to be sober. The deputies hauled him to jail.

That night, Coates’ defense attorney began pushing for an investigation that eventually would lead to the indictment of several officers involved in the arrest. But at the time, Coates’ prospects looked bleak. He was facing a range of charges including two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer. As a young man, Coates had spent time in prison after being convicted of a felony assault. If he was convicted of another felony, he could spend the rest of his life in prison under an enhanced sentence.

A week later, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Overnight, the chances of the FBI actively pursuing a public corruption case in rural Texas evaporated. And for the time being, the sheriff was standing behind his deputies.

“[Kreuzer] was like a little kid with a new toy,” recalls Helen Spencer, Coates’ cousin. “They get it, and they just do whatever they want.”

One Thursday evening in May 2002, Deputy Rod Yarbrough was jawboning with some of his colleagues about the skullduggery within their department. At the sheriff’s request, Yarbrough had begun an investigation of Sergeant David Beck, who had allegedly stolen a wallet and some valuable knives from a couple after pulling over their car. In the middle of the group conversation, Deputy John Joslin made a confession: He had helped to set up Vernon Coates.

Joslin told Yarbrough that after pulling over Coates for a broken taillight in September, he had given Coates a field sobriety test. According to Joslin, Coates passed. He was sober, and Joslin booked him accordingly—that is, until he received a phone call from Hardy.

According to Joslin, the chief deputy ordered him to change the charge against Coates to include DWI At first, Joslin resisted. There was a videotape of Coates passing the sobriety test. But Hardy leaned on Joslin, and he eventually filed the more serious charge. The videotape would later mysteriously disappear.

In the wake of Joslin’s initial confession, anxieties started running high in the sheriff’s department. Nobody knew for sure whom Joslin would implicate. One deputy confronted Joslin and accused him of “burning down police officers.” Four days later, Hardy called Sergeant Frank Huff of the Texas Rangers to ask for help with an investigation. Allegations had surfaced against Joslin, he said.

In February 2000, Joslin had resigned from the police department of the nearby town of Cleveland. An internal investigation had concluded that Joslin had offered to drop a woman’s speeding ticket in exchange for sex. Kreuzer had hired Joslin about a year later.

Now a Chambers County deputy named Crystal Schoppe was accusing Joslin of sexually assaulting her. Joslin denied the allegations and suggested the whole thing was a smear campaign orchestrated by Hardy. (Although Joslin was never indicted on the charges, the subsequent investigation nevertheless turned up a number of women in Anahuac who bore witness to Joslin’s habitual horndogging.)

By stepping forward to accuse Joslin, Schoppe had exposed her own performance on the job to closer scrutiny. A memo soon surfaced—Kreuzer said he had found it on the floor of Hardy’s office—suggesting that Schoppe had been having a sexual relationship with one of the inmates in the county jail. During interviews with Huff, several former inmates said they had witnessed Schoppe’s affair with inmate Joseph Barton. Schoppe denied any wrongdoing. But when interrogated, Barton confessed, and Schoppe was later indicted for the charges.

Interview by interview, the scope of Huff’s investigation continued to widen. Much of the venality seemed to revolve around Hardy. In May, the sheriff’s office had found an invoice for roughly $1,300 of work performed by a company called Miracle Maintenance Concepts. Hardy had forwarded the bill to the sheriff’s office for payment by the county. Sgt. Huff of the Rangers now investigated and found that the contractor had helped build a site for a kennel and a swimming pool in Hardy’s yard.

At about the same time, Huff began investigating allegations that Hardy had illegally purchased four drug dogs for the sheriff’s office from the Hill Country Dog Center. According to the owner of the store, Hardy had promised to pay $28,000 for the dogs using money seized from future arrests—a major breach of county purchasing protocols.

Kreuzer had seen enough. He fired Hardy, Schoppe, and the captain of the Anahuac jail. Deputies Joslin and Brett Hulsey (who had helped arrest Coates in September) also resigned. After firing Hardy, Kreuzer named Yarbrough his new chief deputy. The problems, they said, had been rooted out. “We want to police our own before we police our community,” Yarbrough told the Houston Chronicle in August 2002. “We want to show that we won’t put up with anything. I’m glad it’s over and hope that now we can begin to heal.”

But the fallout from Kreuzer’s experiment with pro-active law enforcement was far from over. The lawsuits and the scandals kept piling up. In September, an inmate escaped from the county jail. In Octob
r, an inmate died after jailors alleg
dly denied him medication. In December, several female inmates accused a newly hired jailor of trading them cigarettes and other favors in exchange for sex.

The situation was faring as badly in the courthouse as in the jail. Joslin sued the county for violating his rights as a whistleblower. The county eventually settled for $35,000. Coates sued the county for violating his civil rights. The county settled for $120,000. As a result, the county’s insurance rates have also increased. Last year, the law enforcement liability premium paid by Chambers County jumped from $95,000 a year to $158,000. The county’s annual premium for professional liability also increased, from $46,000 to $75,000. There are at least two more civil lawsuits pending against the county. In all likelihood, citizens of Chambers County will be paying off Kreuzer’s legacy for years to come.

Kreuzer knows exactly whom to blame for everything that went down on his watch: Dearl Hardy, human nature, frivolous lawsuits, and City Hall. Not necessarily in that order.

“I can’t tell you why people do things,” says Kreuzer. “They are all human. If we didn’t have humans and their instincts out there, we wouldn’t need law enforcement. We’d have a perfect world.”

All the major charges were eventually dropped against Coates. In March, Hardy was convicted of perjury for his involvement in Coates’ third arrest and is currently awaiting sentencing. Nevertheless, Kreuzer refuses to admit any wrongdoing.

“As far as all the frivolous lawsuits about the racial profiling and the abusive force,” says Kreuzer, “you’ll find that all of that is a smokescreen put up by the defense attorney to get his client released from criminal charges.”

In the end, Kreuzer attributes his downfall not to poor oversight on his part, but to the management practices of the almighty. “God is still in control,” says Kreuzer. “He puts people in office. He takes people out.”

So do the voters of Chambers County. This time around, they sent Kreuzer the same message that decorates the back of a sign outside the Anahuac Area Chamber of Commerce. In bright green letters, the county offers a goodbye: “Later Gator.”

Felix Gillette is an Austin-based writer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST