By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So here's what I'm wondering. Guy calls up the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency and tells them one of their tow-truck drivers just went bananas and pulled a gun on him in traffic. What does DART do?
They call in their guy, right? Grill him. Then they call the citizen back, right? They have to take it seriously.
Mmm, maybe not. Judging by the court file I'm looking at, DART doesn't take anything too seriously.
Why should they? Do you even know who they are? Really? Do you know the name of a single member of the DART board? There are 15 of them, eight from Dallas and five from the suburbs, all appointed by their city councils. This is a major public entity with a budget of $328 million a year, almost 90 percent of it in tax money. But they operate behind a comfortable screen of anonymity.
And let me say right off the bat that I'm not going to choose sides on who's telling the truth about the gun. The caller, Jeremy Ordaz, a 26-year-old electrician, says a DART tow-truck driver held a gun on him two years ago while Ordaz was stopped at a light. Ordaz's lawsuit against DART is just now nearing trial.
The DART employee, Edgar Aponte, didn't talk to me. I called his number and left a business card at his address in Lancaster. But he did give DART a written statement in which he said there was no gun.
Who am I to say? What I'm talking about is that DART just blew the guy off. After DART got statements from its two employees saying there was no gun, it closed the case. Ordaz says DART never spoke to him after that point. Two years: not a phone call, let alone an interview to see if he's telling the truth.
DART declined through a spokesman to discuss the lawsuit. The suit is slated for trial August 23. DART did say its policies prohibit employees from carrying guns on duty.
The lawsuit has dragged on, so by now Ordaz has legal costs that he wants DART to repay. But his original reason for suing, he insists, was never to get money. It was to force DART to listen to him. He told me last week that's still what he really wants.
"They need to change their stance and at least admit that they were wrong somehow. They are a governmental agency, and they work for the people. You would think that they would try to do a little something for the people to show that they have concern. "
The first time Ordaz called DART, somebody called him back to tell him DART didn't have any tow trucks that night in the area where he said the gun-waving incident occurred. So in other words he was nuts or making it up.
Ordaz's girlfriend, Jennifer Roberts, was a witness. She and Ordaz made separate complaints to DART. DART gave her the same story. She says she told them, "When I looked out my window, there was this big DART logo, and I know that was it. I have a really clear memory of what that looked like."
It goes from there. Roberts, who is a lawyer, refuses to accept the DART stonewall. She starts making legal demands under the Texas Public Information Act for dispatch records and so on. DART finally calls back and says they goofed.
Yes, there was a tow truck at the intersection you and Ordaz described. And, yes, apparently there was some kind of minor verbal tiff between Aponte, the DART driver, and Ordaz. But DART assures Roberts and Ordaz that they have looked into it, and there was no gun.
According to the records I have on my desk, DART did this: A foreman called in Aponte and Charlie Square, another DART employee who had been at the wheel of the bus that Aponte was towing. Each man wrote a one-page statement saying there was no gun.
Well, look: I'm not Sherlock Holmes, and let's assume you aren't either. But I do believe I see things in both men's statements that would have caused me concern, had I been the responsible DART executive overlooking all of this.
For example, Aponte said in his statement, "I honk the horn of the service truck, and I point it at him..."
Uh, Mr. Aponte, you point whatat him?
Here's the background: Ordaz and Roberts were coming back into town at about 9:45 p.m., May 21, 2002, after visiting Roberts' mother in Mesquite. Aponte and Square were coming back into town with a disabled bus in tow. They all wound up on the westbound Interstate 30 service drive at Peak Street half a mile north of Fair Park.
Aponte and Square are both bus mechanics for DART. Aponte has been with DART since 1997, following a 10-year military career. Square was at the wheel of the bus being towed, helping to steer and brake.
Ordaz was in his own vehicle, a small truck. Roberts was in her car, a sports model. They saw the DART bus ahead being towed slowly up the middle lane of the three-lane service road. Roberts went to the left of it and Ordaz to the right. So at the red light at Peak it was Roberts in her sports car in the far left, bus and tow truck in the center and Ordaz in the right lane.
The lane Ordaz was in required him to turn right. He didn't realize that and wanted to go straight, in order to get to the nearby loft he shared with Roberts.
Aponte wanted to turn right onto Peak Street from the center lane, but Ordaz was in his way. In his initial statement to his foreman, Aponte said he signaled to Ordaz to turn right: "The driver of the truck look and wave at me, then he proceed to drive off straight to I-30. I then proceed to turn right to Peak..."
But when Ordaz's lawyer, John Lewis, pinned Aponte down in a deposition, Aponte painted a more colorful picture. He said Ordaz gave him the finger. Under oath, he testified he said to Ordaz, "Why you point the finger at me? I say, 'Fuck you, too.' I remember telling him, 'You need to turn right.'"
For his part, Ordaz testified: "I really could not understand what he was saying...I said, 'Do you need to turn?' And he kept babbling or whatever you might call it, and after repeating my question what does he want me to do a few times, he leaned over and grabbed something.
"And then he put it in the air, and I could see that it was a gun. It was a pistol. And then he placed it sideways and aimed it at me, and I put my hands up and just...I didn't say a word after that."
Two years have passed. Ordaz told me last week: "I remember every detail of that night."
Roberts said under oath that, while stopped in her car on the other side of the truck, she heard screaming and shouting so violent that she feared a homeless person was attacking someone. My experience is that lawyers do not casually perjure themselves.
DART has a witness backing up Aponte's story--Charlie Square, behind the wheel of the bus. He said there was no gun, only "a conversation" between Aponte and Ordaz.
Sure, maybe. But I visited a DART repair facility last week and got a good look at a DART tow truck. They have a big tank on the back to pump air into the brake system of the disabled buses they tow. The tank obscures the rear window of the tow truck. I do not see how Square could have seen anything.
I called Square, and we spoke briefly. He told me that he and Aponte had to communicate with hand signals while Aponte was towing him. I asked specifically if they had to do the hand signals "out the window."
"Yes," he said.
He wouldn't discuss the Aponte case in particular, but I interpreted what he had to say as confirming my earlier impression--that he couldn't have seen through the rear window of the tow truck.
Seems like DART would have known that.
Ordaz believes that DART, as a public entity, should have felt a heightened urgency about investigating his claim. But DART played the public agency card just the other way. DART spokesman Morgan Lyons told me DART had invoked its "sovereign immunity" from suit as a state agency. A judge agreed and barred Ordaz from suing DART. Ordaz is still suing Aponte, however, and DART is still providing Aponte with legal defense.
Lyons told me an investigation of the incident was carried out by the Dallas Police Department. But that's sort of a dodge. Jennifer Roberts made the report to the DPD, not DART. A DPD detective called her back, found out nobody was shot and never called again.
DART needed to investigate this as a personnel matter, not as a criminal complaint. They should have wanted to know if they had a dangerous employee on the street waving guns out the window.
I'm not saying Ordaz and Roberts are telling the truth and Aponte and Square are not. That question could go either way. This is my point: What Ordaz got from DART was a straight "screw you." That's why this is a lawsuit now, which is crazy in itself.
Guy calls up the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency and tells them one of their tow-truck drivers just went bananas and pulled a gun on him in traffic. What does DART do?
Zip. Is that somebody who feels bulletproof, or what?