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Carole and Mark Price photo by Dave Mann county district aqotney,,RriUnsk, first Republican elected in San Jacinto Countyever. 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. For a district attorney, Mark Price is a soft-spoken man. He doesn’t curse or often raise his voice. It was hard to imag ine 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 1840sthe same land Price now lives onand 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. continued on page 18 FEBRUARY 10, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13