By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Or so he thought.
Just after 11 p.m., Smith saw a silver pickup in his rearview mirror. He watched the truck turn onto a farm-to-market road and kick up dirt as it drove over the shoulder and crossed onto the road and into the wrong lane.
Smith turned his car around and hit the gas. He drove 75 mph until he caught the truck and watched as it crossed double-yellow lines onto the shoulder and back again. Preparing to make a stop for drunken driving, he radioed the license plate number to a dispatcher, who called with the owner's name: Weldon Gene Lucas.
Smith knew the name. Anyone involved in Denton County politics or law enforcement knows the name. Weldon Lucas is the sheriff of Denton County, a political heavyweight, and as many suspected and Smith would soon learn, seemingly untouchable.
Smith called for reinforcement, then pulled Lucas over. Lucas refused to take a breath test but agreed to a field sobriety test, which took place in front of the patrol car and was recorded by a video camera.
In his report, Smith wrote, "Mr. Lucas had the strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath. His speech was slurred and thick-tongued, and his eyes were bloodshot. As he stood facing Trooper Smith, he continually could be seen rocking and swaying and appeared to have some difficulty maintaining his balance."
Smith told Lucas he was under arrest for drunken driving. About that time, Smith received a call from a Sherman Police Department officer who somehow had already heard about the arrest. He asked if he could collect Lucas and bring him home. Smith said no. Lucas was going to Grayson County jail.
By the next morning, Lucas was out of jail and the Dallas-area media had descended on his office. Lucas declared his innocence and said he would be exonerated. Just wait, he said.
Smith defended his report, but as Lucas predicted, a Grayson County grand jury decided not to indict Lucas. Incredibly, grand jurors blasted Smith instead. He was considered for disciplinary action. Local media reported that he had been reprimanded four times and placed on probation once (for yelling at a prisoner and for yelling at a man during a traffic stop) in his 14 years as a trooper.
Shortly after the grand jury incident in 1994, Smith found himself working in Baytown, east of Houston.
"We were forced to move," Smith says. "I had an option, I either moved on my own or the department would move me to wherever they saw fit."
That's the way things seem to work for Weldon Lucas in this burgeoning county north of Dallas. Lucas' name has been linked to a bevy of bizarre and troubling incidents--shocking catfish to collect food for political fish fries, keeping black men and most women out of important department jobs, threatening employees who don't vote, and more. Though any of those things might destroy or at least seriously dent someone else's political career, nothing ever seems to affect Lucas or stay in voters' memories for long. Even the fact that he and his wife are in the middle of a divorce while she is dying seems to be a non-issue among those who support him at the polls or at the sheriff's department. Weldon Lucas is a political kingpin who is about to be re-elected without opposition and is poised to rise to greater heights.
In fact, Lucas, a former Texas Ranger, seems more popular than ever. Despite having no formidable competition during the spring primary, he raised more than $200,000 for his campaign, more than was raised by all of his GOP primary opponents combined. Sure, the money came from the usual suspects, his top department people, big-shot Republicans, fellow officeholders, and developers, but it also came from non-players. One of his fiercest critics says that Lucas can get 600 regular people to show up for a fund-raising dinner while other politicians in the county can barely attract enough to start a poker game.
Politically, he scares the hell out of his opponents and those who think they might cause him problems. Would-be primary opponent Will Travis, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent who some said had a good chance of unseating Lucas, decided not even to file to run after reports of career miscues began mysteriously arriving in unmarked manila envelopes on the desks of reporters. One of those reports said that Travis had lied to obtain a search warrant in a 1995 drug arrest. Even though he dropped from the race and the widely known allegation had occurred five years ago, it suddenly gained the attention of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Last month Travis found himself facing a perjury charge in federal court. The charge was dropped, but Travis says he can't help but wonder about the timing.
Lucas says that all he knows about the incident is "there was two people in jail because of a lie he [Travis] told." Lucas concedes that he might run a tough campaign but scoffs at the notion that he is otherwise feared.
"Hell, I'm a nice guy," he says.
hr style="size: 1px; width: 50%; text-align: centerJust off the Denton County jail lobby, where anxious-looking women sit and an inmate clad in black-and-white striped jailhouse pajamas busily shines shoes for $1, is the wood-paneled and frequently smoke-filled sheriff's office. (He designated it an official smoking area.)
Lucas, a barrel of a man who looks a little like Paul Sorvino, sits behind a heavy wooden desk in a high-back leather chair surrounded by confiscated weapons and other tough-guy stuff. On a table is an autographed picture of Chuck Norris, star of Walker, Texas Ranger. Lucas is a consultant on the show and knows Norris and other cast members.
"I read their scripts and make sure they're doing the proper thing," he says. "Chuck's a nice guy."
First elected in 1993, Lucas, 58, has not infrequently been burned by the press. He nevertheless agreed to a lengthy interview because he's "never tried to hide from the public," and never will, he says. As he talks, Lucas keeps his hands busy by continuously turning over a disposable lighter or by smoking one of the day's 30 or so Winstons. When he talks, he looks straight at you and answers even the rudest questions directly and in a non-threatening way. That's what some claim to be his strong point: people skills.
"Whether we get along or not, you are always welcome here," he says. "I do not hide from the press. I really don't."
No, he really doesn't.
Longtime Denton lawyer Bill Trantham says the man's unflinching ability to maintain lines of communication is what has kept Lucas in the sheriff's chair and on speaking terms with some of his most vocal critics. Trantham, who has handled several lawsuits against Lucas and his department and could be ranked among those critics, says, "Weldon Lucas stands out as a mighty oak tree in a landscape of forest plants. There's nobody else in this county that has any people skills."
Lucas claims a fierce streak of loyalty to those whom he trusts. Those who know him say he receives the same sort of loyalty in return from those who report to him. Yet that loyalty has landed Lucas in trouble with the public on more than one occasion. He once gave his secretary a $10,000 raise. Last year, he gave the secretary's husband a $700-a-month job mowing the lawn at a house being used for undercover narcotics operations. The sheriff's department spokesman said then that the husband was the only one who could be trusted with the top-secret address. The criminal justice division of the governor's office, which was critical of the lawnmowing arrangement because of the family relationship, is apparently among those who can't be trusted; the division relinquished the address as part of a request filed under the state's Public Information Act.
Some say Lucas gets so much loyalty from his employees because he hires misfits who have nowhere to turn. Lucas claims it's just a matter of keeping his word.
"The main thing is, I am a man of my word. If I tell you something, that's the way it's going to be," he says. "I have a helluva lot of loyalty. You've got to understand, I've got 400 people working here. Several thousand people--everyday citizens--are also very loyal to me."
Lucas is undoubtedly as politically savvy as they come and can be trusted to do what is necessary for his fellow Republicans in his GOP-dominated county. That commitment is how he ousted his predecessor, Kirby Robinson.
"I work hard enough within the Republican Party that, yes, I have loyal backers that usually...assist me in certain political endeavors," Lucas says.
Unlike Tarrant County Sheriff David Williams, whose career imploded following repeated public confrontations with his county's commissioners, Lucas is careful to keep any battles with his commissioners behind closed doors.
"If I'm mad as hell--and I've been mad as hell--at [Commissioner Jeff] Krueger, I'll go to his office and knock on his door, or if I see him over here and we go in here and we chew each other's ass out, but the whole world don't know that. We walk out of here friends. I've seen sheriffs go over there and just raise hell in court. That's not my way. I'm not going to fight commissioners or judges or any elected officials in the open."
That's exactly why the county's commissioners may appear so obsequious regarding the sheriff. He gets the votes before he goes public, Lucas says.
"I still don't get half of what I want," he says.
Nevertheless, during his first eight years as sheriff, Lucas he has achieved quite a bit of what he's wanted, including two major jail expansions. The latest of these achievements initially involved a proposal to award a lucrative consulting contract to the Republican Party county chairman's law firm. That proved as unpopular as a proposal to pay for the new jail expansion without asking voters. Commissioners eventually booted the law firm from the mix, but despite a public outcry, they continued with a plan to borrow part of the money for a $17 million jail expansion. Lucas has won several raises for his troops and has received much of the special equipment he has requested (including watercraft and sport utility vehicles).
Complaints regarding the party's chairman and the jail bonds didn't affect Lucas' fortunes. In the last legislative session he was a driving force behind a plan that would make inmates pay for their time behind bars. The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the scheme as a boneheaded way of squeezing money from those least likely to have it. The plan was nevertheless approved by the Legislature. During the primary election this spring, Lucas made national news when he declared that every employee in his department must vote in the primary or face disciplinary action. Lucas also sent letters to his employees endorsing Denton City Council candidate Raymond Redmond, who lost the election in May. Public complaints didn't faze Lucas, and he fully intends to enforce the required-voting policy.
"I love it," he says. "You work here, you've got to vote...Damn right."
In 1997, he caused a stir when he announced that all inmates working in the public eye would wear the old-fashioned black-and-white striped uniforms. Another time, he advertised his jail with color brochures in 27 states to attract warm bodies to his empty jail beds.
None of these episodes seem to affect him at the polls.
While he doesn't win by a big margin, Lucas has a core of support that is practically unchanged since 1996 when he beat Barbara Miller, a former sheriff's department lieutenant, with 54 percent of the vote in the primary election. This March he beat Glenn Glasscock with 54.4 percent of the vote. Despite the solid vote, Lucas said the March primary was the most tiring of the last three because of the extent of his wife's needs.
"I got tired, but it was not necessarily the politics," he said. "There weren't enough hours in the day. I probably did less politicking--personally going out and shaking hands--than ever before in my life."
hr style="size: 1px; width: 50%; text-align: centerThe campaign trail may be the smoothest part of his long ride as sheriff, which has been bumpy at times, starting with the drunk driving arrest.
Lucas says the entire episode was the trooper's fault. Lucas was driving home after a dinner at a campground northwest of Sherman when Smith stopped him. He claims that Smith was angry because he was not invited to the law enforcement dinner party and thought Lucas was someone else. An investigation later revealed that Smith thought he was stopping Buddy Wade, a retired trooper and constable who had a long-standing feud with Smith. At least that was the report made public.
Lucas says that as a rule he never drinks more than three alcoholic beverages at one time--and the night of his arrest was no exception.
"I had a bottle that might have had that much in the bottom of it," he says, nearly pinching his thumb and forefinger together. "I passed a liquor store going out there, and I said, 'Well, I might get me another bottle,' and then I said, 'Aw hell, this is family, kids, everything else.' I said, 'I'll drink this here.' I made it make two drinks."
The videotape of the arrest proved that he was not drunk, Lucas says. The only reason he refused to take the breath test was the unreliability of the breath-testing equipment at the time.
Smith says that he wrote his report directly from the videotape and defends his claim that Lucas was drunk.
"I wasn't lying. I wasn't setting anybody up. I wasn't looking for him. I happened to be out there working a DWI highway, and here comes a gentleman in a vehicle at 11 o'clock at night. You cannot tell who's driving. I end up chasing him--finally getting him to stop--and realize who I have," he says. "I don't care. You can be a police officer, you can be the governor of the state of Texas, if you're drunk and you're behind the wheel, you go to jail. Period."
Not if you're Weldon Lucas. He would pull off a similarly successful escape a few years later when two of his top-ranking men placed Lucas smack in the middle of a brouhaha over lawmen and illegal fishing. In 1998, a burglary investigator and an assistant chief deputy were questioned under oath as part of a wrongful-discharge lawsuit. Although it had nothing to do with the federal lawsuit, the two men were asked about illegal fishing by members of the Denton County Sheriff's Department. They revealed that department employees frequently drove to Lake Texoma to collect catfish to feed hungry donors at political fund-raisers. The lawmen testified, and others have concurred, that they used radio equipment to generate an underwater signal that disoriented the fish and forced them to the surface.
It was not only unsporting; it was illegal.
In his deposition, Paul Scott--the burglary investigator, Lucas campaign donor, and still a top department dog--said, "Well, it's not electricity that does it. It's an FM signal that runs down a 40-foot lead wire that you're dragging. And between the positive and negative, it's an FM signal that makes the float in a catfish fill up, and he has no choice but to float to the top of the water."
"Is this a legal form of fishing?" a lawyer asks him.
"And which public officials would you do this for?"
"Well, I just, you know, when someone says, Scott, we need some fish."
"You'd just go up and get them some, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," Scott said.
When asked if Lucas poached some of the fish for his own fund-raising events, Scott replied: "Well, that's what I'm trying to think. If we ever had, I know he didn't know about it. But I have supplied a lot of fish to a lot of people."
Scott said that they stopped the practice in 1995 or 1996.
Lucas steadfastly denies he was involved and claims the fish were caught before his time.
"I never, ever, heard that it was going on. I thought they were netting fish up there illegally, but I hadn't heard them talk about the 'shockathon' and that was before I was sheriff. I know you don't believe that, but that's the God's truth," he says. Then he adds, in very Sopranos-like fashion, "I hope my kids drop dead right now and my friends drop dead right now if I'm telling you a lie about that. I had no idea about it. Never took part in it. And that's the God's truth.
"I can tell you people that were out there that you wouldn't believe. I know people that was out there that would die right now if it came to light.''
Johnny Glass, a one-time sheriff's department deputy and former Lucas pal, is unimpressed by Lucas' denials. Lying is his "modus operandi," Glass says.
"He was there. I was there. He's a lying sack of shit," Glass says with a laugh.
News of the shockathons came to light in 1997 when Glass filed a lawsuit which claimed he was fired after filing a report alleging that Lucas stole county equipment.
"[Shockathons] went on over there every year that I know about since 1983," Glass says.
Glass runs Gainesville Seafood, a converted gas station that offers fresh and frozen radio-wave-free seafood and Louisiana-style meals that Glass personally prepares.
In his lawsuit, Glass claimed he was an exemplary employee who was fired because he reported Lucas' taking home and keeping a metal detector that was supposed to go to the crime lab. Glass says the crime lab supervisor told him about the theft and asked Glass to write a report that said Lucas had taken the metal detector.
Lucas admitted using the equipment but denied any wrongdoing. Glass says he became a marked man afterward and subsequently was fired for missing a meeting and failing to return several pages from the sheriff's department.
In the court case, Glass sought lost wages from 1996 to 1998, and compensation for "pain and suffering." Jurors awarded him $35,000.
In an office next to the seafood market's kitchen, where tropical fish swim on a computer screen, Glass reclines in his swiveling office chair. Sporting a dip of snuff inside his lower lip, he clasps his hands behind his head and grins, satisfied.
"I'm vindicated. I said I don't care if I get one dollar out of this; I want the jury to look at that man and tell him he's wrong, and that's exactly what they did. It hurt him worse than having to give me a bunch of money, because he's so egotistical that he's got everybody snow-jobbed or thinks he's got everybody snow-jobbed that he can't stand the thought of getting beat by a lowly deputy that took him to court and basically kicked his ass.''
Lucas, obviously, is no Johnny Glass fan. During the trial in Sherman, Lucas looked both tired and uncomfortable at times as he sat with the county's attorneys through hours of testimony.
"The truth really, finally came out and the man gets $35,000," says Lucas, who claims Glass has no credibility and would "sell his own mama."
"If Johnny's mouth is moving, he's lying," Lucas says.
Glass counters that Lucas "wants to be able to run people off if they catch him doing something wrong and they mention it. Then he wants to be able to fire them and say, 'Oh, that's a disgruntled ex-employee,' but as far as they're concerned, every ex-employee is a disgruntled ex-employee. Anybody that doesn't work there is disgruntled. That's the way they look at it.
"Most of those people that had an opportunity to get a job someplace else don't work there anymore. They are allowed to stay as long as they don't rock the boat...Anybody that stands up to him is gone."
hr style="size: 1px; width: 50%; text-align: centerOne of those former employees who challanged Lucas is Howard Clark, a former patrol deputy who quit and works for the Lewisville Police Department. Clark was the last black man to work in the entire 150-employee law-enforcement side of the department, something he calls the front side of the wall (The "black faces" are kept in jailer positions and away from the public eye, he says.)
"I was told that before [Lucas] took office that he was going to do away with the quote unquote nigger coalition back in the jail, and there would be no black faces on what we call the front side of the wall, which is the admin [administration] and operations, the people that were out in front of the public," Clark says.
With the exception of two black women clerks, no African-Americans work on the front side of the wall. Not one black man or any woman works the roads of Denton County as a deputy or investigator, and none has since Clark left the department in 1998. (Denton County's population is roughly 6 percent black.)
Clark says Lucas told racist jokes in an incredibly racist department that discouraged real police work from all but insiders "who knew the right people not to ticket."
"It's just like 1950s Alabama, alive and well in Denton County. He's untouchable, so he thinks. Nobody challenges him."
Clark calls the department a "cesspool" inhabited by insiders seeking personal gain.
"These guys are still living these cowboy fantasies, coming in with their saddlebag thrown over their shoulder, wearing a low-slung gun rig on their hip and their string ties," he says. "I've been in law enforcement for 15 years now, and I know who good officers are and what a good officer is, and I know a good ol' boy, but you hear him [Lucas] talking about the good old days when you can whup up on somebody and all that, and I'm thinking, good old days for who? You whup up on me just 'cause I'm black, what I look like. That's kind of what they thought.''
When Lucas first took office, he quickly demoted Clark from sergeant to patrol deputy, among other demotions. Clark was told he was to change jobs because he was better suited as a patrol deputy.
"My demotion speech was 'you do everything right, you dress well, but I could use you better as patrol deputy.' In other words, I'm being demoted because I'm doing my job.''
Because Clark's pay was unchanged, he didn't quit on the spot. Later, despite his being the top patrol deputy, he was overlooked for raises given a Caucasian patrolman in the same position. Clark claims that he was demoted because the word at the sheriff's department was that he had only made sergeant in the first place "because he was a nigger."
Lucas says Clark was reassigned with about 15 others and that it wasn't discrimination.
But being demoted was only the beginning of Clark's experience with racism at Denton County's Sheriff's Department under Lucas. Clark says a co-worker heard about Lucas "sitting around one of the SWAT meetings telling nigger jokes and throwing 'nigger' out left and right and the guy comes back and tells me.
"So I go back to the sergeant's office and explode and tell everybody exactly what I thought, because I knew it would eventually get back to him. And sure enough, about a week later he called me in the office and said, 'I understand you're mad at me.' I was like yeah, I am. I told him why, and he's like, 'Well, I don't remember saying that...but the way I was raised, I might have.'"
Lucas remembers the incident and said he does not remember using the word, which he considers foreign.
"I was not telling black jokes. It wasn't even a joke. It was a real thing that did happen, and if I used that word, it's not a word I use and I told him at the time that if I did, then I apologize to you," Lucas says. "Another lady that heard that I had said it came in and I apologized to her, and I said it's not my way...If it happened, it was definitely a mistake."
Though he knew of qualified black applicants for the front of the department, Lucas wouldn't consider actually hiring one unless the numbers of minorities in the department as a whole significantly declined, Clark claims.
"There would be a black applicant on the paper, perfectly good applicant, college, good clean record, ready to go to work, and he would look at it and see, you know, black male and go, naw, that ain't happening," Clark says.
Clark came to despise the lack of real work given to him and any of the others who were not on the "inside."
"We had a lot of freedom because nobody really cared. They didn't want you to do anything, and they didn't want you to go out and enforce. If you did write up the wrong person, you'd get in trouble for it. You do the right thing and then it turns out to be somebody he knows."
Clark quit after he was constantly frustrated with "jokes" such as being called "boy" in the hallway by white deputies who would then yuk it up at his expense.
"When I get pissed off at the county because some idiot goes, 'Hey, boy,' trying to be funny, they say, 'Hey man, what's up with this guy?'
By the time he decided to quit, Clark's weight had ballooned to 320 pounds and he felt "mean and mad" all the time.
"If you're not a member of the young Republicans club, if you're not white, and you can't supply free beer or barbecue or something or you got some gimmick or you'll do whatever they say, you can't make it. I'm sure when I left they were probably like, 'Phew, that's the last one.'"
Bernadette Lambert, one of the last women patrol deputies, says Lucas did not want females on the road either. Lambert, who is out of the sheriff's department and law enforcement, said after one woman had surgery, she said Lucas told her, "'These damn women and their female problems. If I didn't have to hire another one, I wouldn't.'"
Lambert say Lucas "ran blacks off" one way or another.
"The blacks, it was pretty evident he didn't want them from the day he walked in the door," she says.
A black jailer who had a police baton "shoved up her butt" while she was exercising with fellow officers in 1996, complained about the incident but then quit the department after her supervisors tried to convince her to change her story.
"It was just horrible. That's when I knew this wasn't a place for me to be working," she says. "One of the black guys threw a kiss at one of the white females that worked there and he was terminated, and he was terminated really quick, but this guy was not terminated, he continued to work there, the guy that did that to me...It's terrible. It's a terrible atmosphere to work in."
Says Clark: "They turned on her like rabid dogs. They were just kind of like that old, well, 'if you hadn't been dressed in such a short skirt, you wouldn't have been raped.' They tried to make it her fault. They'd stare her down when they were in briefing and walk past her in the halls and eyeball her and lean over and whisper. It would just be intimidation."
The woman, now a Lewisville police officer like Clark, asked not to have her name used because she fears what Lucas might do to her.
"I don't know how much power Weldon has. I really don't. From what I hear and from what I've seen, he has a lot of power...I love my job now, and I love the place I work. I don't want anything to happen."
Lucas says he tries his best to attract minorities and women to the front-line jobs but has had little luck because his jobs don't pay enough compared with other law enforcement agencies in the area. (Lucas, apparently, is not alone in his problems finding qualified minority deputies. Collin County, which has about the same sized population as Denton County, employs four black women and one black man in a 150-member department, a human resources director there says.)
In his defense, Lucas points to the number of high-ranking black men working in the jail.
"There's captains in the jail; there's lieutenants in the jail...To my knowledge, I have not had a black applicant for our patrol. Why would you apply for our patrol when you can make $5,000 or $6,000 more in Flower Mound? You'd be a fool.
"I promote out of the jail. To my knowledge, we have not had an applicant that is a certified police officer apply out of the jail in three or four years. I look for minorities of all types. Asians, anything. We solicit them, but we can't get them. We're trying our best."
hr style="size: 1px; width: 50%; text-align: centerBefore finishing his third and what he says will be his last term as sheriff, Lucas must first endure the worst storm of his life, his divorce from his high school sweetheart and wife of 40 years, Sandra Lucas, who is in the final stages of a difficult struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease. Sandra Lucas, who requires 24-hour care, supposedly filed to divorce him after he threatened to divorce her, a family member says. The divorce is filed in Denton County but is sealed. (Although Texas judges can seal divorce files for any reason, it is not a common practice in Denton County, a court clerk there says.)
Sitting in his leather chair, Lucas gets so emotional when he mentions his wife that he cannot speak. His eyes fill with tears. They were supposed to retire together to a spread of land in South Texas that has been in the Lucas family since the 1800s, he says.
"That's where my wife and I were going," he says. "She won't make it that long, but that was our plan when we purchased that land and planned our retirement. She was the same age as I was. That was the plan."
When Lucas becomes this sympathetic figure, all of the bad tales about him suddenly seem an invention.
Of course, not all of the rumors concerning Weldon Lucas are bad. If George W. Bush were to become president, rumor has Lucas' being appointed one of 94 U.S. marshals in the spring, serving in the Eastern District of Texas. Lucas says that if he were to finish his work in Denton County and if the prestigious job were offered, he just might take it.
As for Trooper Smith, six years later, he is a corporal and just as convinced that Weldon Lucas was drunk that night while driving on a road north of Pottsboro. He is also angry about how the tables were turned and his being forced to move so far from family ties in North Texas. He has filed a lawsuit against the state; the hearing is scheduled in Austin in March.
"I reported a lawful offense to a lawful authority... and they took retaliatory action against me for doing that," Smith says. "They told me in private, it was by the book. It was a good arrest, and the next thing I know it comes time to grand jury and all of a sudden I'm being brought up to the grand jury, and I'm the one being told I'm a crummy officer, and I need to transfer to driver licenses, and that I'm a detriment to the state.
"...The man got away. He should never have gotten away."