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

"Ms. Bennett is a bright, interesting woman who has a lot of energy, which is marked by occasional outbursts of enthusiasm, but is primarily overladen with grief and anxiety," wrote JoAnn Bradshaw, an Austin psychologist Gail visited for a year after returning to Austin from Corpus Christi.

"The grief, as I see it, is caused by the time and happiness lost over the last two years; and the anxiety is caused by her fear and distress regarding who to trust and how to regain control of her life.

"I think the prognosis is favorable, particularly once the legal prosecution of her assailant is accomplished and the past can be safely put behind her."

Failing with the Archer County grand jury, Gail tried prosecution through the U.S. Justice Department, but an assistant U.S. attorney would not pursue the case--"It would be your word against his," she was told.

Finally, almost two years after the attack, she went to see Austin civil rights attorney Tom Kolker, who has his office in a run-down house on Austin's southeast side. Kolker was so shocked by Gail's story that he decided to represent her despite his already crushing caseload.

"It was such an outrageous thing that happened," says Kolker. "I couldn't let it go unaddressed."

In June 1992, Kolker filed a case in Austin federal court accusing Sheriff Pippin of violating Gail Bennett's civil rights--specifically her right to personal security and bodily integrity, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Kolker didn't think it would be an easy case to win. "It's very hard to sue a public official, especially for misconduct," Kolker says. "Most people don't want to believe a public official, especially a police officer, could abuse their power this way. It's too scary a thought."

Of course, what made this case even more difficult was the absence of witnesses. Pippin never denied he had sexual relations with Bennett, but he claimed it was consensual. "The lady enjoyed it," Pippin responded to a question in the interrogatories Kolker sent him while preparing the case.

Kolker also was concerned whether Gail would be emotionally strong enough to testify. "I saw the pain in her when she talked about it in my office," he says. "And that was a private and safe setting."

The case, originally filed in Austin, was transferred to the Northern District of Texas, Wichita Falls division. Though Kolker--and his co-counsel Ed Tuddenham-- originally sought a jury trial, they began to change their minds, fearing that a jury might be biased toward the sheriff.

Pippin's attorneys proposed arbitration, provided they would be allowed to appeal the decision. Kolker and Tuddenham agreed, on the condition that any trial would be before a judge, not a jury. Three Austin lawyers who heard the case in arbitration last September decided against the sheriff. Pippin's lawyers appealed. The case went to a nonjury trial in Wichita Falls in February.

Dallas Federal Judge Joe Kendall, who travels to Wichita Falls once a month to hear cases, presided over the two-day trial of Bennett v. Pippin. On the stand, Gail Bennett repeated the story she had told the police and the grand jury--that the sheriff had forced her to have sexual relations against her wishes.

Pippin and his attorneys maintained that the sex was consensual. Pippin's attorneys bolstered their position with testimony from a bait shop owner who claimed that Gail had acted friendly to the sheriff when she ran into him the next day at her store.

Joe Kendall became a federal judge in the North Texas district in 1992 after stints as a Dallas police officer (for four years), an assistant district attorney, and a state district judge. He includes in his official biography a Mark Twain quote that he said captured the essence of his life: "Always do right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

In a nonjury trial, a judge has leeway to question both sides--in an attempt to "do right." Kendall took full advantage of that opportunity in this case.

Kendall found much of Pippin's testimony hard to swallow. Pippin testified again that Gail had come on to him by letting her hand linger on his while he lit her cigarette.

"About one hour after shooting her husband, she starts coming on to you?" Kendall asked incredulously.

Kendall asked Pippin what he would do if he had found out that one of his deputies had gone to the house of a suspect who "had just been cut loose from Archer County Jail, at 3 in the morning, within five hours after shooting her husband, while you're investigating her, having not talked to the husband to get his side of the story to find out whether it was self-defense or not...and the investigator is out there having sex with your suspect in what could turn out to be a murder case; as sheriff...what disciplinary action would you take...?"

Pippin: "I would probably fire the deputy."
Unlike the Archer County grand jury, Kendall had a hard time believing that there was a conspiracy involving Gail Bennett and other law enforcement agencies to remove Pippin from office. "...The reality is that Austin PD Detective[Robert Merrill] probably had to get a state map out to figure out where Archer County was when he started hearing about this deal," the judge told Pippin. "What in the world would he know about or care about Archer County politics, whether you were the sheriff or Little Joe from Kokomo was the sheriff?"

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