By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"David's courthouse practices are being questioned right now, I think, because a lot of the county employees we deal with are black, and they can make your life easy, or they can make it hard," says Terry Gray, who is white and the owner of All Bail Bonds. "Nobody's been able to do the business he is doing with no advertising. People wonder if he's getting some sort of help."
The sheriff's investigation into Wells and his business partnership with the bailiff, Mark Toliver, is at some level an outgrowth of those complaints. Even a source close to the inquiry says bondsmen have been a wellspring of leads. "This thing has gone in a lot of different directions," says the source, acknowledging that issues beyond Wells' business with the bailiff are under review. "People are saying there's smoke, there must be fire."
Pat Kinnard, a white bondsman who was instrumental in putting Wells in business, thinks smoke is all there is. "There's a bunch of crying by these guys who've been hurt because David has done so well. People are upset, saying, 'Here's a black man taking our money.'"
Contacts, politics and perhaps influence-seeking had a lot to do with Wells getting in the business, Kinnard says. "But that's the way it is...He got a break, and he's done well with it."
In the 1980s, Wells was a police department community service officer and a recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal for his work with the Boys Club. His Oak Cliff gym, Reach for the Stars, coached young boxers, and Wells even took one of the boys under his wing, serving as legal guardian.
But all that changed in 1990, when Wells pleaded guilty to a minor theft charge for pinching a $55 pair of boxing gloves from the Dallas Police Athletic League. Not only was he fired from the police department, but USA Boxing, which oversees the amateur ranks of the sport, banned him for life amid allegations of misuse of money and equipment, according to police records and an officer of USA Boxing.
Wells changed careers, and went to work as a private investigator. "You pick yourself up and keep working," he says. He began getting some court-appointed defense work but apparently not enough to stay ahead of the bills. In a 1992 bankruptcy filing, Wells listed as his only assets a 7-year-old Chevy Blazer, $100 worth of clothes, a $200 watch, a 9-millimeter Beretta automatic and another gun he labeled "tools of the trade." Among his debts and expenses were child-support payments ordered for two children in a 1989 divorce and a mortgage on a small house that was $6,717 in arrears. There were no credit-card bills. "I don't believe in 'em," he says.
One thing Wells' sworn filing omitted, which the Texas Attorney General's Office brought to the court's attention later, was $300 a month in support ordered as part of a paternity suit brought by the mother of a girl he fathered in 1989. (As recently as 15 months ago, the state was still filing judgments against Wells in the case, saying he had fallen $13,576 behind. A Dallas court dismissed a second paternity suit brought against him last year.) In 1994, after two years of struggling to keep his house, a federal bankruptcy judge shut the door on Wells, and the bank foreclosed.
Meanwhile, around the courthouse, Wells was developing a reputation as a competent criminal investigator, a man who could get around on the city's meanest, gang-plagued streets. "If someone needed to get a witness here, David would get them here," says state District Judge John Creuzot. "He has a good reputation."
In 1996, Wells joined Royce West's defense team in the over-the-top, media-saturated Michael Irvin case, which turned out to be as much a career boost for Wells as it was trouble for the star receiver, who eventually pleaded no contest to cocaine possession.
Wells, at least on television and in news accounts at the time, became the bruising, sweat-suited bodyguard who cleared the courthouse halls, elevators and bathrooms for Irvin's entourage as they moved through the piled-up media and starstruck fans.
Out of view, he became Irvin's friend if not a running buddy, who at times fielded press questions on Irvin's behalf. As an investigator on the Irvin team, Wells played enough of a role in the bizarre case of Johnnie Hernandez--the ex-Dallas cop who attempted to have Irvin killed for threatening his girlfriend--that a lawyer for Hernandez saw fit to dig into Wells' background as he was preparing to defend the ex-cop. Suddenly, Wells had more troubles.
Attorney John Read discovered that Wells had let his state private investigator's license lapse, and he reported it to authorities. In a case that made national newswires because of Wells' fresh Irvin connection, a Dallas County grand jury indicted him on four misdemeanor counts, with state authorities declaring he had not held a valid license for four years.
But the cases went nowhere, and the indictments were dropped before they went to trial. Wells says he was able to produce a receipt that showed he paid for a license. "Their records are pretty screwed up," he says of the state licensing board.