By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Chalk it up to a slow news week, but an Observer reporter was intrigued by space travel research being conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. The NASA-funded study required research subjects to lie in a hospital bed for three solid months to test a drug that prevents bone loss, one of the negative effects on astronauts from extended space travel in zero gravity ("Supine Science," Dallas Observer, Dec. 8).
More fascinating than the medical research was the underlying psychology. What kind of person would donate his body to science while he was still alive? Would agree to be repeatedly pricked for blood samples, drilled for bone biopsies and prohibited from raising his upper body above a 30-degree angle for 90 days?
Someone with a lot of time on his hands, obviously. But someone who should be doing time? That possibility never crossed our minds. The thought that this study might draw a felon dodging a trial date apparently never crossed the minds of UT Southwestern scientists either when they agreed to let the Observer do the story.
One of the subjects, 23-year-old Christopher Talton, also agreed to be photographed--lying in a hospital bed playing his saxophone, which is partly how he passed the stultifying months on a mattress.
Talton, presumably overwhelmed with boredom, told the Observer a lot about himself: he was a security guard who quit when his assignments at some Dallas apartment complexes became too dangerous. He was using his prolonged hospital stay--for which he was being paid $6,500--to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He decided he would enroll in community college and become a youth counselor--so he could help kids stay clear of trouble.
Unfortunately a lot of what Talton said wasn't true. He neglected to tell the Observer--or the researchers--that he had a much richer history: he was convicted six years earlier for two aggravated robberies. He also failed to mention that during the time he was confined to the hospital he had an appointment at the Collin County Courthouse for a trial on a third felony arrest--this time for unlawful use of a motor vehicle.
Talton had managed to get the trial postponed, thanks to a letter written by one of UT Southwestern's physicians, Dr. Lisa Ruml. The letter explained that Talton was hospitalized for three months. "He must remain at complete bed rest...and will be evaluated for the presence of renal nephrolithiasis [kidney stones], osteoporosis, and cardiovascular and neuromuscular instability," the letter read. The letter failed to mention that Talton's hospitalization was voluntary and scheduled as part of a research study.
"I was 17 and a crazy kid," Talton says.
Talton claims he was only the driver when the crimes were committed. One of the victims was hit in the face with a toy gun, but Talton denies he was the perpetrator.
"But I still participated, which is why I plead guilty," he says.
For his part in the robberies, Talton was sentenced to five years in prison. He spent nine months in the Texas Department of Corrections in Sugarland. In 1992, he was arrested again, this time for unlawful possession of a firearm--a loaded .357 Magnum, a violation of his parole. Talton also gave the police a false name.
Talton claims the gun was not his; he says he was sitting in the back seat of a friend's car and the police found it under the car's front seat. The case is still pending in Dallas County.
Over the next few years, Talton stayed out of serious trouble, but didn't stay completely clear of the law. He spent 90 days in the local jail on two misdemeanor theft by check charges.
In October 1993, Talton was hired by the Matrex Security firm. He worked there for the next several months--mostly at construction sites at night and once at a toy fair in Red Bird Mall, according to his former supervisor Dennis Smith.
Meanwhile the company was conducting its customary background check on its new hires. Three months after Talton was hired, Matrex learned of his prior felony convictions. Smith says Talton was up front about the convictions when he confronted him. But he claimed he had gotten a pardon. When the company asked to see the pardon, Talton quit--sometime in January 1994.
A month later, Talton was pulled over near Texarkana driving a new Acura that had been stolen off a car lot in Plano. Talton told a state trooper he had no idea the car was stolen. He claimed the cousin of a friend had lent him the car. Investigators could not locate the friend or cousin and Talton was charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle, a third degree felony, punishable for two to 10 years. His trial was set for September 12.
Talton's mother, Mary, works as a secretary in the General Clinical Research Center on the campus of the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Last spring, she told her son about a well-paying research project on her floor that she encouraged him to volunteer for.
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