By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
To her supporters, Valdez is merely publicity-shy, preferring to work behind the scenes while careful not to roil the county commissioners who control her department's purse strings. It's this mild-mannered approach that paved the way for a $5 million budget increase for her department. They also praise her for not exacting revenge against the employees who supported her opponent, Danny Chandler, a seemingly unremarkable gesture that's not always extended in the petty world of Dallas County politics.
Most of all, they say, Valdez has quietly restored a sense of normalcy to the department after the final years of Bowles, which saw him routinely battle the commissioners and his employees, face an indictment alleging he misused campaign funds and beat back calls for his resignation.
"Her biggest challenge has been overcoming the stigma she inherited when she came in," says Kate Menges, a Republican activist, past chair of the North Texas Crime Commission and a member of Valdez's transition team. "She's come in to a low-morale sinking ship, and she has had to rebuild the ship and put it back to smooth sailing. I think she's done a wonderful job."
County Commissioner Maureen Dickey concedes that while some wish Valdez would keep a higher profile, the sheriff has quietly been very open to new, reform-minded programs at the jail. "From my view, she is a person who has real compassion for the people in the jail and really wants to see that they are helped," Dickey says. "From the standpoint of caring about the inmates, there has been a definite improvement."
But Dickey acknowledges that she is not on the front lines. Those who witness how the jail operates on a daily basis, from advocates to judges to lawyers, don't see what exactly the sheriff has done to fix the entrenched problems at the lockup. To some, she's just not up to the challenge of reforming a jail whose conditions were grim enough to attract the attention of the U.S. Justice Department.
"I can't think of one thing she has changed," says defense attorney Deandra Grant. "I don't think she was qualified for that job to begin with. It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. I think she just took a job that was too big for her."
In 2003, Bowles' fortunes began to turn. County commissioners began squabbling with him about overtime pay, which ran $7 million over budget. Employees complained of low morale. Later that year a special prosecutor and the FBI began investigating Bowles' salutary relationship with Jack Madera, a longtime friend who won a $20 million food service contract from the Sheriff's Department while he had lavished thousands of dollars in dinners and trips on Bowles.
At the same time, disturbing stories of inmate neglect began to abound. In February 2003, the sister of Clarence Lee Grant, a 51-year-old inmate who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, found her brother weak, disheveled and barely able to speak. She was horrified and informed the guards about her brother's condition. They allegedly told her that he was fine. Two days later, Grant was dead.
That same year, Kennedy Nickerson, another inmate with schizophrenia, was released from the jail, allegedly without medication or notice to his family. Five days later he was found on the street and rushed to Baylor hospital suffering from seizures and a 108-degree fever.
Then there was the case that would ultimately prove to be the tipping point for Bowles and the Sheriff's Department--a case of inmate neglect so astounding that no one could deny that the county had a serious problem on its hands. James Monroe Mims, who had been found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial for a shooting nearly 30 years ago, suffered severe renal failure in 2004 after guards turned off the water in his cell. Mims had earlier flooded his cell. Although the jail and medical staff knew of Mims' condition, he did not receive his prescribed anti-psychotic medication nor any kind of follow-up care, which contributed to his inability to alert the guards about his lack of water. A report by the Sheriff's Department's internal affairs unit, which investigated the incident, found that both the guards and the medical staff failed at key junctures during Mims' tortured stay at the jail and concluded that the severely mentally ill inmate "slipped through the cracks."
One month after Mims nearly died, Parkland officials were stunned to learn that it was business as usual at Bowles' Sheriff's Department. "The practice of cutting off water to a cell and leaving the prisoner without access to water continues," Kristin Branam wrote in an e-mail, dated May 13, 2004, to a colleague. "The events that led to the crisis with Mims could easily occur again in the current climate of frustration and lack of leadership in the Sheriff's Department."