Dateline

The Battle for San Jacinto

This is the prettiest little county in the state. Anybody power-mad up here is sick in the head.”

As Troyce Ellisor talked, it was hard to argue with his words. We were sitting in a park on the bank of the Trinity River, gazing across the gently rolling countryside and imposing pine trees of San Jacinto County. Ellisor was giving me the lowdown on the civil war roiling this tiny tucked-away county of 22,000 people that lies 60 miles northeast of Houston up along State Highway 59. The county’s elected officials and their fervent supporters have split into two rival factions. For the past three years, they’ve been engaged in an epic struggle for the soul of this sliver of Texas and the result has been, well, crazy. Five county officials were indicted on 20 counts of misconduct (almost all were exonerated); the district attorney filed two federal racketeering suits against his opponents (both were thrown out); pornography was discovered on the county judge’s office computer (some believe it was planted); three separate county officials had to fend off lawsuits to remove them from office; two special prosecutors were brought in to investigate the shenanigans; and one band of concerned citizens protested a state district judge for running a “kangaroo court” and appealed for help from the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. attorney’s office, while a rival group of concerned citizens wrote their own pleading letters to the same agencies. It seems both sides believe that, as one county official put it, “We need someone with a badge and a gun to come down here and sort this out.” And that’s only part of the ruckus.

Ellisor has lived his entire life in the county. At 78, he’s still a striking figure at well over six feet with broad shoulders. He belongs to the old guard faction, which, depending on who is talking, is either a group of traditionalists who have run the county well and are defending its honor from hostile takeover or a collection of good ol’ boy Southern Democrats awash in corruption. We had met for an interview in the small rotunda of the county courthouse in Coldspring (population: 690). Right away, Ellisor told me he didn’t want to talk in the courthouse. He thought it might be bugged. So we decamped to my car, and drove literally out of the county. He directed me along 10 miles of back roads until we reached the other side of the Trinity River, the border with neighboring Polk County.

We sat along the bank, just down river from Lake Livingston Dam. Ellisor looked out over the river and pointed toward the opposite side. “All this was cotton,” he said. “Imagine blacks and poor whites over there, picking cotton.” As a boy in the 1930s, Ellisor chopped cotton for 37 cents a day (grown men, he says, were paid $1.25 a day). His family has deep roots here. An Ellisor family member has held the justice of the peace post in the county’s third precinct continuously since 1892. Troyce, though, never went into county government. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 26 years, which prevented him from delving into local politics until two years ago, when, well into retirement, he took over as county Democratic Party chairman. As we talked, it was clear the infighting bothered Ellisor. “I guess the good fishing just ain’t enough for some people,” he said. Indeed, the afternoon I first visited Coldspring, the courthouse doors were propped open to let in the warm air, and the halls were deserted except for two members of the janitorial staff lounging against a staircase. Somewhere the business of the county was probably being done, but it sure felt like everyone had gone fishing. The place exudes peaceful living. So it seems strange that such a tranquil locale, in which everyone knows everyone else, could foster so much anger and mistrust. It’s tempting to blame it all on small-town boredom. There are many other cures for boredom, however, that don’t cost tens of thousands in legal fees.

The more likely cause was right before our eyes. Sitting along the river, we had an excellent view of the 1969 dam that stopped up the Trinity River and formed the 90,000-acre Lake Livingston. The construction of the lake altered not only the county’s geography, but also its population. Since the lake was built, San Jacinto County has become a retirement destination. Gated communities with opulent-sounding names like Cape Royale have sprung up along the shores of the lake, attracting wealthy retirees from Houston.

The more I talked to Ellisor, the more it seemed the real problem in San Jacinto County is cultural. The newcomers, many of them Republicans, moved into million-dollar houses on the lake, but along with their new tax dollars came the ethos of the Houston business community. Ellisor says the newcomers convinced themselves that the county government has deep-rooted corruption and that they needed to clean it up. “They think we’re a bunch of country hicks,” he said. “When I was in Houston, they thought I was a country hick. They come up here, and I’m a country hick. They look down on us like we don’t know nothing. [They] said we need modern management up here.” And now the old-timers are fighting back.

About the only fact everyone agrees on is when the trouble started: the 2002 campaign, when Mark Price, a member of the new guard, won election as county district attorney. Price was the first Republican elected in San Jacinto County—ever. But as Ellisor and others on both sides made clear, this isn’t an ideological fight. No one’s arguing about abortion here or the Iraq war or the role of government. It’s more personal than that. I dropped Ellisor off at the courthouse and left to meet with the controversial district attorney. Before we parted, Ellisor said, “Tell Mark Price that there are 13 knots in a noose.” It was a joke more than a threat, but in San Jacinto County these days, you can never be entirely sure.

Carole and Mark Price

For a district attorney, Mark Price is a soft-spoken man. He doesn’t curse or often raise his voice. It was hard to imagine he’s really trying to take over the county, as Troyce Ellisor insisted. As he gave me a tour of his 40-acre family estate, Price went on at length about the importance of not misusing the power of the district attorney’s office against political enemies. It all sounded fair and reasonable. Price is an outsider; he spent most of his life in Houston, but he has history in San Jacinto County too. His was one of the county’s founding families. They built a plantation near Coldspring in the 1840s—the same land Price now lives on—and he visited his grandmother in the county often as a child. Price has turned his two-story library, in the old guesthouse, into a personal museum of his family’s history in the county, containing artifacts from the old plantation house and portraits of pioneering relatives. That doesn’t impress some of the county’s old-timers, though. “He’s not from here,” one said. “He’s from Houston.”

Price and his wife, Carole, moved to the family land in 2001 after his grandmother’s death. He decided to run for district attorney, he says, because he wanted to challenge the ruling “good ol’ boy” power structure and expose corruption that he saw as ingrained. Asked where the corruption started, Price said, “It’s a lot like asking in Mississippi in the 1960s, how did the civil rights problem get started.” Price traces the rot in the county back more than 25 years to the reign of Sheriff James “Humpy” Parker. The former sheriff and his deputies made San Jacinto County infamous in the early 1980s for using state-of-the-art law enforcement techniques like arresting innocent motorists on Highway 59 and stealing their property, and subjecting suspects to water torture. The FBI, helped by informants in the sheriff’s department, took down Humpy Parker in 1983, and the episode was later enshrined in a book and a movie, both titled Terror on Highway 59. The book’s out of print now, but Price seems to believe he is working on the sequel. He and other new guarders bring up Humpy Parker often. They view the episode not as an aberration, but rather a more obvious example of the corruption that persists beneath the surface in county government to this day.

Price ran for office promising to clean it all up. He won on a reform ticket with County Judge Bill Law, a Democrat, member of the new guard, and fellow recent Houston import. Price had little experience with the criminal justice system when he took office. He attended Houston Baptist University and South Texas College of Law and spent most of his career litigating civil cases, mainly defending health care providers in Houston accused of Medicaid and Medicare fraud. Although Price served briefly as an assistant DA in Fort Bend County, he’d never tried a criminal case when he took office in January 2003.

Within two months, Price uncovered his first example of corruption, prosecuting a county commissioner named Bruce Wayne Thomas. It wasn’t the most diabolical crime ever committed: Thomas had used county equipment to build a short road on his property without approval from the county commission. Thomas pleaded out the case and resigned. Members of the old guard like Ellisor, who had known Bruce Wayne Thomas for years, concede that he had committed a crime but didn’t see the big deal. Bruce Wayne didn’t mean anything by it, Ellisor concluded. To Price, though, the Thomas incident only spurred him to investigate further.

In late June 2003, the new guard’s crusade to purify the county hit a snag. Jenny Vaughn, assistant to County Judge Bill Law, found what was initially described as child pornography on his office computer. It later turned out to be adult gay porn, which, to some in the county, is almost as bad. Vaughn told a county constable, Jerry Everitt, what she’d found. Everitt called in a DPS computer investigator named Arnie Briscoe, whose search of the computer turned up more than a dozen photos of naked men. Briscoe also found chatroom discussions on the computer between someone with the screen name “notsowild2001” and an unidentified man in Houston. They described in detail what they wanted to do to each other and even arranged a meeting. Law has maintained from the beginning that he had nothing to do with the porn on the computer. Law told me that his computer was networked with others in the courthouse and that the system had no firewall. Anyone could have put the porn on his computer, he says.

Price and fellow new guard members took Law’s side. They refuse to believe that the judge could be gay or that he’d put the pornography on his office computer. Before the DPS investigation was complete, Price took child porn charges against Law before a county grand jury, which declined to indict the county judge because there was no child porn on the computer. With Law cleared for the moment, Price decided to pursue who he thought were the real culprits. In August 2003, he filed a civil RICO lawsuit against four members of the old guard—including Vaughn, Jerry Everitt, and his wife, Charlene Everitt, the county treasurer—and six unnamed co-conspirators for plotting to plant the pornography on Law’s computer. Price theorized that the old guard wanted to frame Law to prevent the county judge from exposing further corruption. His conspiracy theory went like this: He alleged that Vaughn passed messages to her fellow conspirators through notes she left in a courthouse office candy jar for Randy Ellisor, a justice of the peace (and relative of Troyce). There was little actual evidence of this, except that Vaughn had left Randy Ellisor a note in his candy jar the day she discovered the pornography. (Folks around Coldspring, though, have taken to calling Randy Ellisor the “Candyman.”) Price later conceded in a deposition that he didn’t name the six co-conspirators in the RICO suit because he didn’t actually know who they were but figured the complexity of the plot required at least 10 people. “I believed that discovery would fill in all the blanks,” Price told me. While civil attorneys sometimes use that strategy, it’s not exactly textbook prosecutorial procedure. And it sent the county into a tizzy.

“Nobody knew who the six [unnamed co-conspirators] were,” says Greg MaGee, an attorney, justice of the peace, and member of the old guard. “You had people scrambling talking to attorneys because everybody knew that if you were on [our] side of the [dispute], you might be involved.”

The evidence of the conspiracy that Price hoped to prove never materialized, and a judge threw out the RICO suit. Price still defends the case. Adding to the bitterness—as if it needed adding to—the DA began to utilize a little-known clause in the civil code that allows incompetent elected officials to be removed from office. He filed civil suits against both Jerry and Charlene Everitt to force them from their positions. Old timers in the county came to believe that Price was a rogue DA who was out to get them—unless they got him first.

In 1996, Lou Rogers retired from the Harris County sheriff’s department and moved from Houston to San Jacinto County. He was soon elected one of the county’s four constables. When he’s not writing traffic tickets, Rogers and his wife operate Elaine’s restaurant, a block from the courthouse in Coldspring. The restaurant is the gathering place for the new guard. When I met Rogers there for an interview on a mid-January evening, two other pillars of the new guard joined him: retired oil company executive Herman Sieck and retired Houston investor Bob Boring. In this group, conspiracy theories, some real and more than a few imagined, are bandied about and chewed over the way other groups of men talk about war stories or great football games. Before long, Mark Price and Bill Law also arrived to eat dinner prior to the regular Republican club meeting that night (Though Rogers and Law were elected as Democrats, they attend some county GOP events, and the Republican club meets in Rogers’ restaurant.)

The new guard, and Rogers especially, feel they are victims of persecution. In January 2004, a new county grand jury convened under the auspices of district judge Elizabeth Coker. The grand jury soon re-indicted Bill Law on new charges of misuse of government property and also indicted Mark Price for allegedly falsifying state budget documents. Rogers has little doubt why Price was indicted, “[Price] will prosecute a public official and he did and he got his you-know-whats in a vise for it.” The grand jury later charged Rogers and his best friend, county commissioner Joe Johnson, for destruction of property and for a civil rights violation after they destroyed a black woman’s broken down trailer home while trying to move it off a county road. Price stepped aside from the cases, and two special prosecutors were brought in from neighboring counties. The grand jury indicted the four men, all of the new guard, on a total of 17 counts.

Rogers couldn’t help but notice that nearly all the members of the grand jury were affiliated with the old guard, as was Judge Coker. His conclusion was that his enemies had stacked the grand jury and were trying to run the new guard out of the county. (Rogers says that Charlene Everitt, county treasurer, displays his mug shot on her desk in the courthouse. When I told him that I had interviewed Charlene and hadn’t seen his mug shot on her desk, only Bible quotes, Rogers and his wife dismissed it. She must have taken down the photo and put up the Bible quotes, he said.) The indictments led to a furious debate in the county over how grand juries are selected. The district judge picks a set of commissioners who then compile a list of 40 names. The judge seats the first 12 eligible candidates from that list. Whether the jury was stacked or just made up of good honest folks is simply a matter of perspective. Justice of the Peace Greg Magee was one of the selecting commissioners. “I tried to think of people I knew who I thought were honest people and would be good grand jurors,” he told me.

In fall 2004, Rogers, Bob Boring, Herman Sieck and other new guard members decided they needed to get more aggressive about defending themselves. They formed a political action committee, the San Jacinto PAC (www.gosanjacpac.com). The PAC began raising money, meeting regularly at Rogers’ restaurant and making up matching yellow T-shirts that read “Because the Constitution still matters.” (The old guard refers to the group as the “yellow shirts.”) Dozens of them began arriving at court hearings wearing their matching yellow attire. “People were outraged and out of that came the San Jac PAC,” Rogers said. “That really turned the tide because it stirred public support.” The PAC members protested outside the courthouse when the grand jury met and during the resulting trials, holding signs attacking Coker for running a “kangaroo court.” Coker maintains that she’s following the law.

Mark Price and Joe Johnson were later acquitted, but Bill Law’s and Lou Rogers’ cases ended in mistrials. Both are to be retried later this year. Meanwhile, Mark Price is running for re-election as DA and will face a tough Democratic opponent (affiliated with the old guard) in November’s general election. Not to be outdone, the San Jac PAC is going after Judge Coker in her re-election campaign, and a host of other contested races will determine which side controls the county commission.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Nunn, a county old-timer and political operative, “but I’m looking forward to the election season, I can tell you that.”

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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