By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Collin County Justice of the Peace John Roller thumbs through the case styled Jim Carrao, d/b/a Lawmart vs. Amanda Dee Kelley and yells out to his assistants in an adjoining office, "Do you remember the chicken case?"
The sound of giggles fills the otherwise empty office. The assistants can't forget the chicken case and neither can Judge Roller, who has presided over this people's court for 36 years and has seen a lot of strange things. But a lawsuit fought over a frozen chicken?
"It was the most screwball case I ever saw," says Roller. Unlike his counterparts in Dallas County, Roller is proud to say he doesn't want Carrao near his courtroom.
"He's a nut, and I don't care if you print that," says Roller. "He's a jerk. He plays with the law. He acts like a lawyer, but he's not one."
The chicken case is one of the more comic examples of how Carrao uses the courts to exact punishment on people he believes have wronged him. When Amanda Kelley first started working as a secretary for Carrao in the summer of 1997, the job seemed like a good opportunity for her to gain experience as a paralegal.
While at Lawmart, Kelley says, she did computer work, served process, and ran errands at the courthouse. She also enrolled in the paralegal program at El Centro Community College and, because she was short on cash, Carrao offered to foot the bill. Soon, however, Kelley says, her boss began to make her feel extremely uncomfortable, suggesting she get an apartment closer to the office, and often inviting her to stay after hours to drink margaritas.
Kelley realized Carrao expected her to work nights, weekends, even through the lunch hour. When Kelley asked Carrao to let her break for lunch, his response, Kelley says, was that she eat at the office.
"So he brought this frozen chicken. He asked me to take it home and cook it and bring it back there. It was rotten when I brought it home, so I just threw it away," Kelley recalls, trying to suppress her laughter. "It was a big issue for him because he sued me for it."
In March 1998, some three months after Kelley quit, Carrao sued her in Roller's court demanding $662--reimbursement in part for the tuition, a pager, personal phone calls, a parking permit, and, of course, the frozen chicken.
Carrao resents categorizing this lawsuit as just a fight over a chicken. "She didn't have any money to pay for her tuition, and she wanted to know if I would pay it for her," he says. "I said I would if you're gonna be here for the rest of the semester. She said she was, and she left the next week. That's $265 that I felt she cheated me out of."
In June, a Collin County jury found in favor of Kelley and agreed that Carrao didn't deserve a dime. But compared with the others who have entered and exited Carrao's life, Kelley got off easy.
Reams of court records, which Carrao himself generated, as well as police reports and interviews with people who have met Carrao provide a striking, sometimes ominous portrait of a man who uses the court system to stalk people whose greatest crime is that they wanted him out of their lives. Those who have been hit the hardest by Carrao's legal pursuit are the people who were closest to him--family, friends, lovers.
Nowadays, Amanda Kelley says she is happy to be far away from Carrao.
"When I came in to quit he said, 'Who do you think you are? I've been your friend, your employer, your mentor. How can you do this to me?'" Kelley says. "If you try to disassociate yourself with him, [that's] when he starts becoming very controlling. I think he's one of these people that hates the world, and he needs to get back at everybody."
Jim Carrao pushes back from a large conference table in the Dallas law office of his attorney, Tom Mills, and clasps his hands behind his head. Ordinarily, the relaxed posture would reflect a feeling of comfort, but Carrao is clearly agitated.
The 60-year-old legal assistant keeps insisting that, as far as he knew, the purpose of this interview was for him to answer questions about the nearly seven dozen cases he's filed against his customers in Al Cercone's JP court. He wasn't expecting, nor is he willing, to answer many questions about his personal life.
Once again, James Vincent Carrao acts as if he's been betrayed. "How long is this gonna go on? I don't wanna sit here and talk to you, a stranger, about every aspect of my life," he says, his voice rising with his anger.
Unfortunately for Carrao, the laws that give him the right to sue people are the same laws that give everyone the right to examine, and even publicly discuss, the information contained in public records--no matter how personal that information might be. The public records that pertain to Carrao and date to the 1960s reflect a younger man who was just beginning to raise a family. He was also just beginning his never-ending tango with the law.