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

When both sides rested, Judge Kendall took a deep breath and sighed: "Well, I've been to three goat ropings at the state fair and I don't think I've ever seen a deal like this one."

Kendall could have taken the case under advisement, he told the court, and mail them the verdict. But he said he wanted the defendant to hear what he had to say.

Before issuing the verdict from the bench, he told the courtroom that he was a police officer himself when he was younger. "I think I have a fairly good feel--more so than many sitting in my position--of what sheriffs and law enforcement officers go through," Kendall said. "I wanted to look you right in the eye and just tell you I believe her and I don't believe you."

Calling Pippin's actions "an insidious abuse of police authority," Kendall awarded Gail Bennett $1 million in actual damages, for which Pippin and Archer County are jointly liable. The judge awarded Bennett an additional $1 million in punitive damages against Pippin.

"Contrary to the sheriff's belief, the Court finds that when a woman says 'no' it means 'no'," Kendall wrote in his decision. "The Court finds that P.L. Pippin Jr. had sex with this woman without her consent and raped her as surely as if he had pulled his gun on her and forcibly compelled the sex."

The trial and Judge Kendall's judgment rocked Archer City. Not even Pippin's friends knew the details of Gail Bennett's allegations until they were revealed during the trial. Pippin had told only his wife, Betty, what happened. She stood by him during the grand jury hearing; then they separated for good and divorced.

Like many residents, Pippin's college friend says he thought that all Pippin was accused of was touching the woman inappropriately.

"During the trial I about wanted to crawl under the carpet," Pippin's friend remembers. "It seemed to me it was premeditated and planned--'this is something that will make us both feel better.'"

But again, like many residents of Archer County, this man still doesn't believe the sheriff raped Gail Bennett. He thinks, like many people in the county, that Pippin has been punished too severely for an "indiscretion."

"The judge made it sound like he held a gun to her head. P.L. didn't force her," the friend says. "She was in a highly emotional state and was pliable and then resented it afterwards. He misused his power, fell to lust. Now she's going to get rich off of this."

Pippin supporters also believe the theory put forward by his lawyers, that Gail Bennett seduced the sheriff in order "to buy insurance against being prosecuted" for shooting her ex-husband.

Pippin refused to be interviewed by the Observer. "The only thing I have to say is that Gail Bennett is a liar," he said over the phone from his office. "I did not do it [rape her]. And I passed a polygraph [taken after the trial] that proved I didn't."

Still, a fair number of people in the county believe Gail Bennett and feel Pippin betrayed them and his office. Many are women who say the federal court's findings leave them with a lingering fear of law enforcement officers. What these residents find most troubling--as does Gail Bennett--is that Sheriff P.L. Pippin is still the most powerful law enforcement officer in Archer County.

And nearly everyone in Archer County worries about how the county, its oil prosperity a dim memory, will pay for the huge federal judgment if Pippin and Archer County fail in their appeal.

The old men who spend their days spitting tobacco and shooting the breeze outside the Walsh Brothers service station--a group the younger guys call the Dead Pecker Club--are typical in the county for thinking their sheriff got a raw deal at the hands of a federal judge.

Fred Walsh, his mouth ringed with brown tobacco stains, says, "I don't think it was his fault."

"I think it was just a bunch of frame-up," agrees Fred's twin brother, Frank. "I don't think they ought to have stuck him at all. A woman generally brings that on herself. She was just trying to get even with him. She was already in trouble and trying to get out of it."

The Walsh brothers are about to close their 50-year-old service station and retire to a life of fishing. Like other residents, they worry how the county will pay for its share of the judgment if it loses on appeal. The county has a $500,000 law enforcement liability insurance policy, which is already being tapped to cover the mounting legal bills.

"If the county has to float a million-dollar bond issue to pay the sheriff's fund, people will be mad," says Pippin's old friend. "With oil and ranching at a low ebb, they can't afford to pay for their sheriff to go out and have some fun. Everyone likes and admires P.L. Pippin. But they're frustrated with him."

Gail Bennett has her own worries. Beyond concerns about losing on appeal, she is angry that Pippin has been able to remain in office. Archer County Attorney R.B. "Burk" Morris has not initiated any proceedings to remove Pippin because the official misconduct occurred during Pippin's last term in office, Morris says. The so-called forgiveness doctrine in the Local Government Code prohibits removal for acts committed prior to the official's most recent election.

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