Sheriff Who?

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was a revolutionary candidate--as a leader, not so much

Valdez's mother wanted an easier life for her two youngest children, Lupe and Ramiro. So one evening, as her husband was eating a plate of fresh tortillas, she demanded the family stay in San Antonio for the growing season.

"I am not going this time," Tere said.

Plinio Valdez stared at her as his breathing turned shallow and rapid.

Mark Graham
Criminal defense attorney Deandra Grant says that the 
sheriff was not up to the job, which is why Dallas 
County's troubled jail system hasn't improved on her 
Mark Graham
Criminal defense attorney Deandra Grant says that the sheriff was not up to the job, which is why Dallas County's troubled jail system hasn't improved on her watch.

"Why not?" he asked as he removed his boots and stomped off the mud.

"I want the last two little ones to finish school and get a job in a store or maybe an office, not in the fields like us. They need to stay in school."

Ramiro wrote vividly about his family's fateful moment in an essay he shared with the Observer. In his account, his angry father told his mother that without him she'd starve. "You and your two precious children. Who will support you?"

At dawn, Plinio left with his five older children and took the family's only car. He gave his wife one last chance to change her mind, but she was resolute. A heartbroken Tere cried as her husband drove away, not sure how a single woman and two young children could manage in their tough neighborhood. But after less than a month Plinio returned early one morning. He didn't have a lot to say, although the older children were overjoyed. As if she expected their return all along, Tere fixed everyone a breakfast of beans and potatoes with fresh tortillas. Plinio found work as a ditch digger for the city, where he stayed until he retired.

"This uneducated Hispanic woman took a stand on behalf of her children," says Ramiro, who has a doctorate in social welfare policy and works as the director of patient services for a local health care network. "She never went to school, she couldn't read or write, yet somehow she developed an appreciation for education. She was an amazing woman."

As a high school student, Lupe volunteered with the San Antonio Neighborhood Youth Association, helping troubled teens. She later worked her way through Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma City. After college she joined the Army Reserves and took a job as a county jailer in Kansas City. In 1978, she moved to the Dallas area, working at a federal prison in Seagoville before moving to a job as an investigator with the General Services Administration. According to a Dallas Morning News profile, the future sheriff investigated drug trafficking, money laundering and white-collar crimes.

Martha Cortez is the polite, soft-spoken niece of Lupe Valdez, whom she calls her "guardian angel." Dallas elected an honest, hard-working sheriff, she says with obvious pride. Cortez describes her aunt as joyful, an animal lover who takes in sick dogs and "always gave 100 percent at work" throughout her career. Now that she is the highest elected law enforcement officer in Dallas, Valdez apparently relishes her important role.

"She loves what she's doing now," Cortez says. "When we do get to visit, she always has this excitement on her face when she talks about being sheriff."

Of course, there is the remarkable narrative of Valdez's life, and there is the separate issue of her job performance. In the perfect story, Valdez would have already put her stamp on the jail and her department, showing herself to be as compelling a leader as she was a candidate. The real story is far murkier. In trying to understand the array of health, sanitation and leadership issues at the jail, the Observer has talked to former and current inmates and their family members, attorneys, judges, mental health advocates, low- and high-ranking department employees, elected officials and county staffers. We've examined lawsuits, e-mail correspondence and public records. As Valdez refused repeated requests for an in-person interview, we've exchanged questions through her tireless spokesman Don Peritz. And yet through it all, no clear, definitive picture of the sheriff emerges. If she's made progress reforming the jail, it's been slow and modest.

Valdez's one obvious deficiency as sheriff is her preference to keep a low profile even when times demand she stand up and take charge. Last February, when the county debuted the Adult Information System, a disastrous computer program that lost track of inmates and forced many of them to languish behind bars weeks after they should have been released, many of her advisors urged her to say something, anything, about the emerging crisis. The Morning News ran a front-page story detailing the agonizing plight of inmates who were forgotten in the jail and suffered without their medication or contact with their friends and family. Other media outlets quickly snatched up the story, but Valdez remained, more or less, out of sight.

The sheriff was not to blame for the malfunctioning program, although Commissioner Ken Mayfield has said that her clerks sloppily entered bad data, contributing to the crisis. Regardless of whether Valdez deserved even a smidgen of blame for the chaos at the jail, it is her jail and many urged her to speak about the problem and offer an apology, but according to at least one of her advisors, Valdez didn't grasp the gravity of the situation, much less the responsibilities of her office.

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