Toy boy

Tarrant County Sheriff David Williams lusts for helicopters, Chevy Tahoes, and machine guns, but in the hands of used car parts baron Ed Max, Williams is the ultimate cop toy

Williams did not return phone calls seeking an interview for this story.
For years, nobody in Fort Worth seemed too terribly concerned about Max or other aspects of Williams' quirky regime. The Star-Telegram, which took a sort of hands-off approach to its coverage of the sheriff through much of his first term, endorsed him for a second four-year term in 1996. He easily vanquished several weak and under-financed opponents in the primary and general election.

The honeymoon finally ended last fall, however, when two deputies died in a crash of one of the department's Army surplus helicopters, the only helicopter unit operated by a sheriff's department anywhere in Texas.

Williams responded to a public uproar over the incident by sealing himself off even more from the media and the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which controls his budget.

Now, even people around the Tarrant County courthouse who aren't overly political are outspokenly critical of the 44-year-old Williams.

"He's a dummy; people think he's crazy," says defense lawyer Ward Casey. Charles Baldwin, another attorney, says he thinks Williams is "dumb but honest...He's too stupid to be doing something on the sly."

When the sheriff's name is mentioned to a sheriff's department bailiff, the man replies, "What's he done now?"

Williams' defenders say he is sharper than one would gather from his halting appearances in public, where he is completely adrift if not working from a prepared text.

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, who managed Williams' campaigns, says Williams doesn't have the rhetorical polish of the county's best politicians. "He is a reserved person; I don't know if shy is the correct word, but he doesn't seek publicity. He's technical-minded. He needs 45 minutes to explain one thing, and you can't deal with the media like that."

But even a few of Williams' friends concede he's not had an easy time going from his job as a drug education officer in a suburban police department--where he supervised one person--to heading an agency of 1,330 employees.

"He went from the wading pool to the ocean," says Phil Ryan, the Wise County sheriff. "He's taken time to adjust."

Perhaps so. But had Max not given Williams water wings, he'd probably still be teaching about the perils of pot in the suburbs.

And someone might have picked up those perfectly good Fords.

"Look at old Don, that old gorilla-face," defense lawyer Leonard Schilling chuckles, pointing at a photo on his wall of the previous Tarrant County sheriff, Don Carpenter, a tobacco-chewing warrants officer who referred to himself in the third person as "the sherf." Carpenter liked to boast that he never went further than high school, but "I got a few college boys working for me."

Stuck into the photo's frame is a gold "Re-elect Don Carpenter" pin, which Schilling says the sheriff's secretary sold him from her desk. That sort of nonchalance toward legal niceties--in this case, electioneering on the job--got Carpenter indicted in January 1992 on eight felony counts, including aggravated perjury, falsification of records, and misappropriation, for taking guns out of the property room and giving them to his friends. The "sherf" took a leave of absence, lost the GOP primary, and was placed on probation the next year after he pleaded no contest to several of the charges.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have left old Don alone," says a laughing Schilling, who takes some credit for helping turn in Carpenter.

The problems that forced the first Republican sheriff in Tarrant County since Reconstruction to the sidelines in 1992 were nothing but opportunities for Ed Max.

That year, the skinny car-parts king, dressed in a checkered shirt and modest pants, and squinting out a bit from his glasses, sat in the living room of his sprawling home on a point on Eagle Mountain Lake and explained to this reporter that all he wanted was to raise the caliber of the sheriff's department.

So he put his checkbook behind a political neophyte, a 38-year-old suburban cop who had never held a management job in law enforcement. At that time, Williams was an unknown in a field of seven in the crucial Republican primary. Democrats have ceased to be viable candidates in countywide elections in Tarrant County.

"I'd known Ed for years, and he asked me to help him find a good candidate to run for sheriff," relates Tom Wilder, a savvy GOP campaign consultant who took his considerable knowledge of the county's voting patterns and got himself elected district clerk in 1994.

"I had some real doubts about whether David would be a viable candidate. He had no name recognition," says Wilder. "But Ed felt he was honest; he had a written plan of action, and he talked about making the sheriff's department more active in law enforcement" (instead of merely managing the jail, which is a sheriff's chief duty in Texas' urban counties).

"I told Ed we're getting a late start on the money-raising, says Wilder, whom Max had put in charge of running Williams' campaign. Wilder recalls Max replying, "Oh, I can raise the money."

Hence, when other unknowns were casting about for contributions, Williams had $73,000 to spend in the primary--$44,000 of it from Max.

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