By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Marquez has no job and no stable residence, bouncing between friends' houses in Grand Prairie, and both he and Spears are having trouble attending meetings and staying away from drugs. They've tested positive for illegal substances on their UAs and have spent time behind bars as a result. "They call it jail therapy," Snipes says.
The judge is far more optimistic about Melendez.
"We think he's gonna make it," he says.
Two other veterans attend Snipes' weekly meetings—William Smith and Charles Clemons—but Snipes says Smith didn't qualify for the program, and even though Clemons claims that he was told he'd be the first to enter the program when he and Melendez attended the first meeting together in May, Snipes says the allegations against him are "too serious."
Clemons, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran diagnosed with PTSD, has been advised by Snipes not to comment further as his trial is pending for a charge regarding accusations from a 6-year-old that he grabbed her by the arms and "forced her to sit on his lap" while he drove around a South Dallas apartment complex on April 13.
Prosecutor McNeil says Clemons is "a great guy," but he admits to feeling "uneasy" about the nature of the charge against him, which is officially "unlawful restraint with the risk of serious bodily injury." He also indicates that mistakes were made when Clemons was led to believe that he had been accepted into the program.
"We kinda rushed into it and hadn't thought it out yet," McNeil says.
McNeil first met Snipes in the Green Zone of Iraq while serving in the Army in '04, although the encounter was brief. After 22 years with the military, McNeil says it was a "no-brainer" when he received a call from Kevin Brooks, felony trial bureau chief for the District Attorney's Office, and was told, "You're going to be the prosecutor for the veterans court."
There are two types of veterans coming into contact with the criminal justice system, McNeil says: the "knuckleheads" who are legitimate criminals, and others who are feeling stress related to their military service. While McNeil hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD or any service-related mental illness, he admits to having a "meltdown" in a movie theater shortly after he returned from Iraq.
"I just had to get out of there just because it somehow started to creep me out," he says. "Fortunately, I'm beyond that, but I understand how some people might seek solace in alcohol, drugs or violence, and I don't want them to do that. I would rather them get treated and get help, especially since they've earned it."
McNeil describes his role as a screener as opposed to a prosecutor in the veterans court because he's working with instead of against the defense counsel, and he won't prosecute any of the cases that he reviews and doesn't admit into the court. The county doesn't keep track of the cases that haven't been accepted, but he says most are rejected because the veterans either don't have an honorable discharge or their mental illness can't be linked to their military service.
While the law gives him broad discretion when choosing participants, McNeil stresses that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' motto is "public safety, public safety, public safety," and he won't let anyone in the program who could potentially pose a danger to society. He's also not concerned about the ability to allow extremely violent offenders into the program.
"I guess if I sat here long enough, I could come up with a circumstance where some horrific crime could be something that we might say, 'OK, we'll take that,' because of the individual circumstances," he says.
Like Snipes, McNeil isn't optimistic about Marquez and Spears, claiming there's "a strong possibility" that Marquez gets kicked out, with Spears "99 percent there."
The last hope for Marquez, Spears or any of the veterans in the program to succeed is the one person McNeil calls when he wants to know how one of the veterans is doing: 71-year-old court mentor and "force of nature," as McNeil calls him, Tom Madrzykowski.
"We'd never encourage a volunteer to incur expenses on behalf of one of our veterans or clients, but he does, and I'll be damned if I can stop him," McNeil says. "If somebody needs a ride or somebody needs 10 bucks or a meal, he's gonna do that. We need somebody with his energy."
Sitting at the end of a long conference table inside the Observer's offices, Madrzykowski leans back, takes a deep breath and pauses. "I'll tell you something I have never ever told anyone about when my service ended," he says.
Unknown to Snipes and even his spouse of nearly 20 years, Madrzykowski says he ended up AWOL in Houston shortly after returning home from a tour of duty in Indochina from 1960 to '61. His troubles began upon his arrival at Fort Riley, Kansas, just outside Junction City, which he describes as a "hot spot for drugs" at the time.
As an Army soldier, Madrzykowski says he began abusing alcohol and various drugs including crystal meth, opiates, "Bennies" (an amphetamine called Benzedrine), hash and marijuana to suppress trauma like watching medics use tongue depressors and toilet paper to mark pieces of dead bodies that had been blown to smithereens. "Most of us weren't prepared. We had no idea what we were getting into."