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

The sexual assault case against Sheriff P.L. Pippin was presented to the Archer County grand jury in the courthouse in January 1991. Almost everyone on the grand jury knew the sheriff--whom friends call "P.L."--on a first-name basis. Some of them knew the sheriff well enough to ask him during questioning if he was drinking again. "It wasn't a jury of his peers, it was a jury of his kin," says one county resident, who says he was disgusted by how the grand jury acted.

Pippin told the grand jury that Gail had consented to have sexual relations with him, and in fact had come on to him by letting her hand linger on his when he lit her cigarette.

He admitted she protested his advances, but characterized it as "coy," "artificial shyness," and "token verbal resistance," according to a grand jury transcript that became evidence in a later trial.

Pippin admitted that his sleeping with a suspect in a criminal investigation was "a mistake" and an "unfortunate indiscretion." But he painted the rape investigation as part of a political conspiracy to oust him from office. That Gail Bennett, a newcomer to the area when she encountered Pippin, and Austin police officers could be part of a political conspiracy against him was something the grand jury found plausible.

In an unusual move, the grand jury gave the sheriff himself the option of deciding whether it should indict him, thus allowing him a trial to clear his name, or issue a no bill--not indict him. Pippin said he would take a no bill and take his chances on his reputation. The grand jury granted his wish and voted not to indict.

Archer County confirmed its support for Pippin by reelecting him sheriff in 1992.

While Sheriff P.L. Pippin's life went on successfully after the grand jury hearing, Gail Bennett's spiraled out of control. She moved to Corpus Christi and began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the rape, which compounded the trauma of shooting her ex-husband. She's been in therapy almost continuously for the past five years, suffering from insomnia, nightmares, agitation, and obsessive behavior such as frequent showering. She is also fearful of strangers--and of law enforcement officers.

A small woman with bird-like features exaggerated by her over-sized glasses, Gail Bennett looks to have lived far longer than her 43 years. Even before moving to Archer County, Bennett's life was far from easy and untroubled.

Gail was born in Iowa and grew up on an egg farm near Waco, the oldest of four children. Beyond that, she won't share many details about her family, from whom she has been estranged for the past 15 years for reasons she only describes as "personal."

Gail's ticket out of her family was marriage--in 1969--to her high school sweetheart. It was a short, tumultuous marriage that produced a daughter, Melissa.

Gail was in junior college in Waco when she met her second husband "a serious, nose-to-the grindstone" accountant. They were married in the mid 1970s, and the marriage lasted almost 10 years. Shortly after they were married, they moved to Austin so he could finish school. Gail became a legal secretary and together the couple had one son, who was born with heart problems and Down's syndrome, a form of mental retardation.

In the late 1980s, a few years after they divorced, Gail let her son live with his father, although they have joint custody and Gail has remained very involved in his life.

"I had raised him for eight or nine years and I was exhausted," she says. "His father was in a better position financially. His employer was more flexible if he needed time off to tend to his health problems, and he had more family support than I did."

It was about this time that Gail met Tony Marsh Bennett at a party. He was funny and charming. "He could dance like Patrick Swayze," Gail remembers. "He had a magnetic personality."

With her son living with his father and her daughter on her own, Gail left a routine but secure career as a legal secretary to try her hand at concert promotion with her best friend. And, with the pressures of parenting lessened, she finally had time to do the things she loved, like going on long horseback trail rides, which she did frequently with Tony.

But she soon learned that Tony had a darker side, which emerged when he drank to excess. During the two years they were married, Tony battered her physically and verbally off and on, she says. Sometimes she would have to call the cops. At first, she believed that it was somehow her fault; if Tony really loved her, he wouldn't do this. Finally she realized, she says, that she'd prefer "a broken heart instead of a broken face." She asked him for a divorce.

Even before the divorce became final in February 1990, Tony was asking her to come back. "I did love the guy and he was a salesman," Gail says. "He knew how to sell himself. He held my face in his hands, looked deeply in my eyes, and I just melted."

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