You may be wondering what became of the Texas judge who refused to accept a prosecutors motions to dismiss charges against drug defendants. As a practical matter, judges almost always cooperate with prosecutors eager to dismiss cases. Court time is at a premium and judges generally love motions that clear the docket.
So why, in this instance, is Judge John F. Miller Jr. departing from established practice?
The question becomes more acute when you consider that the motions to dismiss were filed by Texas Assistant Attorney General Nicole Habersang.
This strange judicial wrangling concerns a dozen narcotics cases filed against six defendants, most notably brothers Vergil and Mark Richardson. It all started on the early evening of November 17, 2007 when a confidential informant in Clarksville, Texas purchased $200 worth of marijuana from a young man named Kevin Callaway. According to the police report filed in the case, Callaway “advised” the informant and an undercover sheriff’s deputy “that he was going to have a party and dice game at the residence” later that night.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Callaway, the officer who overheard this casual remark was Robert Bridges, a Red River County sheriff’s deputy in charge of the department’s “Narcotics Special Response Team”. Bridges was running for sheriff and the election was just a month down the road. He wanted to flaunt his tough-on-crime credentials and busting same black drug dealers was just the thing. Bridges ran off to magistrate Shelly Benton and applied for a warrant to conduct a no-knock search. Bridges, a reserve officer, had never written an affidavit supporting a search application and it showed.
No-knock searches are granted in cases where the threat of violence is unusually high and evidence of illegal activity is exceptionally strong. Information that a two-bit drug dealer is having some buddies over to play dominoes doesn’t meet the standard. But in Red River County, as in many jurisdictions, magistrates like Shelly Benton hardly glance at the warrant applications they receive from law enforcement. Everything is rubber-stamped.
Deputy Bridges reasoned that whoever showed up at Kevin Callaway’s domino bash was bound to be a drug dealer. Would it have made any difference had he known that Mr. Callaway was renting his residence from a step brother named Vergil Richardson, a highly respected high school basketball coach who lived in nearby Texarkana? Would his eagerness have been dampened a bit had he known that all the folks who dropped by that night were hard-working Texans like Mark Richardson who had never been suspected of criminal behavior in their lives?
At approximately 10:30 on November 17, 2007, officers with the Narcotics Special Response Team led by Sheriff Terry Reed, Deputy Robert Bridges and an automatic rifle-toting County Attorney named Val Varley came smashing through Mr. Callaway’s front door. The folks playing dominoes and watching television offered no resistance. Vergil Richardson simply asked the officers to show him a search warrant. They refused.
A valid warrant was eventually produced, of course. Curiously, it was signed fifteen minutes after police reports suggest the raid began.
No illegal drugs were found in the home, but a search of outbuildings on the property turned up small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Vergil Richardson was livid. This wasn’t Kevin Callaway’s first encounter with the law, but Vergil thought the young man had been making progress. That’s why he allowed his troubled relative to live in the family’s Clarksville home. Callaway had enrolled in community college and, from all appearances, had been getting his life back on track.
Val Varley, the gun-wielding prosecutor who accompanied officer’s to the raid wearing a flak jacket, saw things differently. If drugs were found on the premises, Varley reasoned, everyone in the house must be part of a narcotics conspiracy, even if they had never been suspected of criminal behavior in the past.
That’s the way the war on drugs works. If you are poor and black you are an automatic suspect. If you are a black high school teacher with a college degree and you have social contact with a drug dealer, you become a suspect.
Unfortunately for prosecutor Varley, Vergil and Mark Richardson hired real attorneys. Mark Lesher, Mark’s attorney, filed a motion to have Varley recused on the theory that his attendance at the raid made the prosecutor a potential fact witness. Varley was replaced by Nicole Habersang with the office of the Texas Attorney General.
Then, two long years after the raid on the Richardson home, with the statute of limitations looming, Lesher filed a civil rights lawsuit on Mark and Vergil Richardson’s behalf.
Judge John Miller learned about the civil rights suit the same day he accepted the plea deal Ms. Habersang had negotiated with Kevin Callaway. Although Miller wasn’t named in the lawsuit, Red River County, the city of Clarksville, Val Varley, the Sheriff’s Department, the Clarksville Police Department and several high-ranking officers with the Narcotics Special Response Team were.
Miller took the $2 million the Richardsons were asking in damages very seriously. Desperate for an excuse to justify inaction, he appointed a special prosecutor to convene an equally special grand jury to consider every word Kevin Callaway had uttered during a long and tortuous judicial proceeding. Miller suspected (for reasons that have never been entirely clear) that Callaway was being thrown under the bus by his drug-dealing relatives. Not a scintilla of evidence backs up this theory, but Miller hoped the grand jury would conclude that Callaway was lying to protect his family. The judge was hoping this shocking revelation would give the Attorney General’s Office pause.
It didn’t work. The grand jury concluded that Callaway’s admission of sole responsibility was genuine. Days later, Ms. Habersang renewed her motions to have all the charges against the remaining six defendants dropped.
That’s when Judge Miller bowed his neck and scheduled a September 13 trial date for the state’s non-existent case against Vergil Richardson.
Now, as the Paris News reported this morning, Mark Lesher has filed a motion to have Judge Miller recused. Why, the motion asks, did the judge suspect that Kevin Callaway was covering for his family? Where was the evidence? If the prosecution couldn’t see it, why could judge Miller? And doesn’t it sound as if the judge, unhappy with the conclusions the prosecution has reached, has decided to prosecute the cases himself?
These issues will be hashed out before retired Collin County District Judge John McCraw tomorrow in the Red River County courthouse. I will be attending the hearing and will give you an update in the near future.
But the Richardson case wasn’t the only headline in today’s edition of the Paris News involving prosecutor Val Varley and defense attorney Mark Lesher. Five months after the Richardson family was indicted, Mark Lesher and his wife Rhonda were arrested on charges of aggravated sexual assault on Shannon Coyel, a troubled woman they once tried to assist.
It’s a long and troubling story and I will only give you a brief summary. On June 13, 2007, Shannon Coyel left her wealthy rancher husband, Jerry Coyel and ran off with a ranch hand named Red McCarver. Jerry Coyel, reputed to be the wealthiest man in Red River County, didn’t take the affront lying down. First, he filed for divorce, then he had his pal Val Varley issue arrest warrants against Shannon for allegedly endangering the child she had left in the custody of Jerry Coyel.
A few days later, on July 21, 2007, Red McCarver was indicted for possessing dynamite.
Eager to avoid arrest, McCarver asked if he could stay at Mark and Rhonda Lesher’s ranch. A few days later, Shannon Coyel moved into the trailer McCarver was using as temporary quarters. During this period, Ms. Coyel consulted attorneys in several Texas towns and made shopping trips to Paris, Texas.
Just prior to a contentious custody hearing on September 10, 2007, Shannon surprised everyone by moving back in with Jerry.
Two months later, police raided the Richardson home and Mark Lesher was hired to defend Vergil Richardson.
Then, in March of 2008, a series of lurid accusations started appearing in the internet. An anonymous accuser was alleging that Mark and Rhonda Lesher, aided and abetted by Red McCarver, had drugged and sexually assaulted Shannon Coyel. (The thoroughly disgusting posts were eventually traced back to Jerry Coyel.) On April 18, 2008, Val Varley asked Shannon Coyel to tell her story to a Red River County grand jury. When the legality of the grand jury was challenged, Varley had Ms. Coyel testify before a second grand jury on July 15, 2008.
Had Mr. Varley made a few inquiries he would have discovered a number of respected attorneys willing to testify that Shannon Coyel’s story didn’t square with documented fact. On the day in which she was allegedly in a drug-induced stupor, she talked to an attorney and made several credit card purchases in nearby Paris, Texas stores. Why had she taken nine months to share her sad plight with anyone, her parents included?
Val Varley, realizing that his close ties to Jerry Coyel raised ethical issues, asked four out-0f-county prosecutors to take the case. No one was willing to base a prosecution of this seriousness on the uncorroborated word of a defendant with emotional problems and a long and complicated legal history.
Varley pressed forward, taking the case to trial at the Collin County courthouse in January of 2009. Under withering cross examination, Shannon Coyel’s story collapsed and the Lesher’s were acquitted after one of the shortest jury deliberations on record. Shannon Coyel has since been indicted for aggravated perjury in Collin County.
But wait, it gets even stranger. Within days of the trial, Red McCarver (Shannon Coyel’s erstwhile lover) was re-hired by Jerry Coyel. A few days later, Coyel posted bond on McCarver’s dynamite charges and Red reciprocated by telling Val Varley that Shannon Coyel’s allegations had been legitimate.
This is a story about an ethically-challenged rural prosecutor manipulating weak-willed defendants while being manipulated by a wealthy rancher. Jerry Coyel’s money and influence stand behind every sordid twist in this tale.
Might there be a connection between Judge Miller’s refusal to let the state dismiss charges against the Richardsons and the bogus sexual assault case filed against Mark and Rhonda Lesher? Mark Lesher, after all, has filed a vindictive prosecution case against Val Varley.
Lesher was persona non grata in Red River County long before Judge Miller heard the motions to dismiss in the Richardson case. Was the judge’s refusal to cooperate with the Attorney General’s Office an attempt to strike back at Mr. Lesher for having filed a civil rights lawsuit against county officials on behalf of the Mark and Vergil Richardson AND a vindictive prosecution suit against the egregious Mr. Varley?
Last Friday, in a dramatic ruling, Collin County District Judge Cliff Oldner gave the Lesher’s attorneys permission to interview members of the two grand juries who were exposed to Shannon Coyel’s perjured testimony back in 2008. Could it really be true that a Texas prosecutor took a case of this magnitude to trial without interviewing anyone but the morally and emotionally compromised Ms. Coyel?
Normally, grand jury proceedings are considered sacrosanct, the veil of secrecy is almost never lifted. In a case this bizarre, however, Judge Oldner felt he had no choice but to depart from established custom.
There is much light yet to be revealed in both the Lesher and Richardson cases. Friends of Justice has been asked to investigate this tangled web and will be keeping you apprised of breaking developments.