Photo finish

Investigator in Ashley Estell case says Plano cops drove him out of department

The last day criminologist Daniel Rhodes worked for the Plano police department, he found someone had been messing with things on his desk.

He had already found a new job with the Arlington police department and was cleaning out his cubicle. But in a frame that used to hold a picture of his niece, Rhodes found a mug shot of a bloodied and bruised black female inmate. Pasted over pictures of other family members were photos of other equally battered minority inmates.

Rhodes, a white man who was a crime scene investigator for the Plano police department, began taking pictures of the pictures. The photos of minority women, he says, proved what he had been saying for months: that the Plano department was a network of good ol' boys used to doing what they wanted, when they wanted. He says he had been harrassed for months because he had offended the code. As far as he was concerned, the set of ugly photos on his desk in March was the last straw. "I was pretty shocked," says Rhodes, 34. "I couldn't believe they would stoop this low. They have been doing all these illegal things to me and I have just been taking it."

Rhodes says the photo incident was part of a two-year campaign by his supervisors to drive him out of the department for revealing police misconduct during the Ashley Estell child abduction-murder case. The criminologist has retained Dallas lawyer William Trantham, who says he will file a $30-million suit against the police department under the state Whistle Blower Act.

The high, and low, point of Rhodes' time with the Plano police department was his participation in the capture of the murderer of seven-year-old Ashley Estell in 1993.

According to Trantham, Plano police supervisors violated Rhodes' civil rights and the Whistle Blower Act over a two-year period before Rhodes finally resigned. The lawyer says police officials harassed Rhodes to keep him from revealing mistakes Plano police made during the 1993 investigation--mistakes that could have freed Michael Blair, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment for strangling Ashley. "It [the harassment] was in retaliation for me reporting it," says Rhodes. "It was a coverup for reporting their illegal activities."

The lawyer maintains Rhodes got on the wrong side of many in the department when he refused to change a report about Blair's capture that showed the police nearly bungled the case.

"He's an honest guy," says Rhodes' attorney, William Trantham. "They wanted to be the heroes. They almost lost that case and they didn't want anyone to know that. So they punish the guy who tells the truth."

Plano police chief Bruce Glasscock declined comment. Gary Chatham, the police department's attorney, says he was unaware that Rhodes plans to sue, but insisted the department had done nothing wrong.

As a crime scene investigator in Plano, Rhodes found himself in the middle of one of the most publicized child murder cases in Texas history. On September 4, 1993, Ashley was abducted from a soccer field. Her partially clad body was found the next day in a field six miles away.

For five days after discovering the murder, investigators had no suspects or leads, even though virtually every detective in the department worked on the case and outside agencies offered help.

Rhodes' troubles began on September 10, just days after the murder, when he and his supervisor, criminologist Ben Armstrong, Trantham says, came across Michael Blair driving near the murder scene. Rhodes noticed that Blair's jet-black hair was similar to hairs found at the site and that Blair acted nervous. On a hunch that Blair could be Ashley's killer, Rhodes wanted to follow him.

But according to Rhodes, Armstrong argued against pursuing the suspect. "He said we were not police officers," Rhodes says. The criminologists were unarmed and technically civilians, although Rhodes has been certified in other jurisdictions as a peace officer.

Rhodes says he insisted on following Blair and, amid protests from Armstrong, finally got Blair to pull over. When Rhodes decided to call for police backup to take Blair into custody, Armstrong again told him to forget it because Blair claimed he was a volunteer helping in the search for the little girl.

Ignoring his supervisor, Rhodes says he made the call and eventually a patrol officer arrived. Rhodes says Armstrong decided the criminologists should return to the police department. "I didn't want to--I didn't want to leave the patrol officer there by himself with this guy, who I believed was the murderer," Rhodes says. He said Armstrong angrily ordered him to get in the car.

Armstrong did not return phone calls from the Observer.
The officer, after speaking a few minutes with Blair, initially let the suspect go. But when he saw Blair heading back to the crime scene, the officer asked him to go to the police station.

Yet, Rhodes says, no one remained with Blair once he arrived at the police garage. So Rhodes rushed back out, got in Blair's car and directed him to a parking place, then took him inside the station. When Blair got inside, detectives interviewed him for nine hours. They released him after questioning, but detectives began following him and staking out his house. Police arrested him a few days later and charged him with the child's murder.

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