Archer County Justice

When a sheriff had sex with a criminal suspect, he called it an indiscretion. She called it rape. and a dallas federal judge called it a $2 million outrage

She went to the Austin police department and told her story in a wrenching, tearful session to Sgt. Robert Merrill, a veteran in the sexual crimes unit. Ironically, it was the gun that she used to shoot her abusive husband that would lead to an investigation of Sheriff Pippin for raping her.

"If the sheriff had gotten her the gun some other way, I don't think we would have had a case," says Merrill, a gray-haired officer who has since been transferred to homicide. "He kept calling her at work, insisting he wanted to see her, probably to try his luck one more time, and that scared the devil out of her. It triggered us to get into the case. I don't think she would have come forward. She knows the problems that come up [in a rape case]."

Merrill initially was skeptical of Bennett's story, especially since she waited three months to report it. "But she had an answer for every question I asked her. She jumped through all the traps and passed a polygraph."

Merrill contacted the Texas Rangers to inform them of Gail's allegations against Pippin. What he learned about the Archer County sheriff alarmed him. A Texas Ranger named Bill Gerth told him that Pippin had recently separated from his wife, was under federal investigation for beating up a suspected drug dealer in his custody (he was no-billed by two county grand juries and a federal grand jury in the case), and that he was mentally unstable.

"The ranger believed he was the kind who would kill a witness if he needed to," according to Merrill's report at the time.

Merrill told Gail to take every precaution against retaliation from Pippin--move out of her daughter's home, drive a different car.

Pippin, unaware of Merrill's involvement, called Gail to say he was coming to Austin to attend a Department of Public Safety course and wanted to see her to return her gun. During that conversation, she says she told him for the first time that he had raped her. He apologized, she says. Although she tried to tape the conversation on an office phone, only her voice can be heard on the tape.

They made plans to meet at a coffee shop. Merrill provided her with a tape recorder, which she carried in her purse. Plainclothes police officers sat at tables throughout the restaurant in case something went wrong. Again the taping failed and the conversation is inaudible, even after being enhanced at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. But Gail says she told Pippin again that he had raped her. She told police Pippin responded again by saying he was sorry for forcing himself on her, but he couldn't help himself because she was "so pretty." He handed her her gun in a paper sack.

"Gail was extremely upset and crying after she was able to get away from him," Merrill wrote in his report. "She said that she had to try very hard to keep her temper in check and so would not tell him exactly what she thought of him. After she was able to get away from him and back to us she broke down several times and just cried. She told me that she was angry for all that has happened and all she has been through."

Merrill turned the case over to the district attorney for the three-county region that includes Archer County. Pippin was arrested near the end of October.

Robert Merrill's believing in her restored some of Gail's faith in the law enforcement system. That faith would be short-lived.

In the 1950s, Archer County, the hub of rich oil and cattle production, billed itself as the "Little Oil Capital of Texas." In 1958, there were seven drilling companies, two oil well supply companies, four welding companies, and three well serving companies, according to a county history written by Jack Lofton.

The public library in Archer City, the county seat, was built in part with funds from novelist Larry McMurtry and is decorated with pieces of the sets from the TV movie Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, based on his books that immortalized the charm and tawdriness of the town.

Today there is only one oil company in town--Burns and Bridwell--and it has scaled its personnel back since the '80s oil bust. The only supermarket in town--Thaggert's--closed 18 months ago, leaving the county's 8,000 residents without a place to do their food shopping except convenience stores or Wichita Falls, about 25 miles away.

The handsome, stone Archer County courthouse stands just off Highway 79, the main strip through town where traffic is delayed by only one blinking red light. On the courthouse lawn a towering sign proclaims the Archer City High School football team the State Class A champions. A second glance at the sign reveals that the year the Wildcats went all the way was 1964. Next to the sign is a clock donated by the Lions Club--stopped at 4:45. Inside the courthouse, a water fountain reads: "Absolutely no tobacco products are to be disposed of in here."

Directly across from the courthouse is a burned-out brick shell--the remains of the movie theater made famous by McMurtry's novel and later the movie The Last Picture Show, which was filmed in Archer City. Across the street on the other side of the courthouse is a low, cinderblock building that houses the county sheriff's office.

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