By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
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.
Rhodes wrote a lengthy account in his report of what happened the day they stumbled across Blair, but a day later, Armstrong ordered him to change the report. Armstrong said on the stand during Blair's trial that Rhodes was acting too much like a detective in filling out his report.
"He told me that it had too much detail, that he didn't want the defense getting it and I told him that I wasn't going to do that [alter it], that that report was already in evidence," Rhodes says. "He wanted it changed so he could get credit for something he didn't do, but [altering] it ultimately jeopardized the case."
Rhodes says Armstrong did not want the defense to know Rhodes had gotten in Blair's car, because of the possibility of tainted evidence. When the supervisor ordered the new report, it also omitted how the investigators followed Blair until he stopped.
Rhodes, who retained a copy of his original report, told Collin County Assistant District Attorney J. Bryan Clayton he felt the order was illegal. He repeated the accusation while testifying. Armstrong dismissed the accusations when he took the stand. The prosecuter said later that Rhodes' accusation of perjury and destroying evidence were "completely unfounded and exaggerated."
Yet it came out during the trial that the altered report, whittled down from a two-page report to a single introductory paragraph, could indeed have caused a mistrial according to Clayton, ironically because Rhodes had sat in Blair's car when he directed him into a parking space.
"The fact that Mr. Rhodes had entered Blair's car before it was processed was not reflected in any other written report," Clayton stated in an open letter in support of Rhodes. "This was a highly significant event and failure to reveal it prior to trial could very likely have resulted in a new trial being granted."
Rhodes says he "tried not to touch anything," while in the murderer's car, but that he feared he might escape.
"I was thinking, 'this guy could just disappear,'" Rhodes says.
Armstrong told the Estell jury that he had initiated an internal affairs investigation to look into Rhodes' allegations. But Trantham says the Plano police department investigated only Rhodes--for showing the case file to his brother, a police officer from another agency.
"They were not going to investigate themselves," Trantham says. "They put the whole case in jeopardy and here they are in public patting themselves on the back. They responded the way any Texas bureaucrat responds when it looks like you're going to show what the operation looks like. They kill the damned messenger."
Rhodes said that after testifying about his report, he endured a cold, hostile working environment at the Plano police department; his supervisors encouraged other employees not to speak to him. Then, he says, his bosses began filling his files with unwarranted reprimands. In one incident, Rhodes says, he was chastised for getting in the way of patrol officers at a crime scene.
"I'm a crime scene investigator, for goodness sakes," Rhodes says. "The patrolmen are supposed to secure the area."
In another case, Rhodes was reprimanded for going to a scene where an officer had been reported shot. "I was right down the street and I wanted to see if I could help. Usually everybody goes," he says. "That just shows how mad I made the good ol' boys.