Archer County Justice

It was a sultry, moonlit night in July, on a back road in rural Archer County, and Gail Bennett thought it would never end.

Gail and her ex-husband, Tony Marsh Bennett, had been fighting all day, and Tony's rage roiled into the evening hours. This time, he was enraged that Gail's children from a previous marriage and her job as a concert promoter took her away from home so much. She had just returned from two days on the road promoting a Shenandoah concert in Taylor.

Just two months earlier, Tony had talked her into a reconciliation by swearing he had stopped the drinking and abusive ways that had driven her away nearly a year ago. Gail desperately wanted to believe him. Leaving her 20-year-old daughter and handicapped son with family in Austin, she joined Tony in Archer County where he had family.

Together, they picked out a small clapboard house with a large front porch on a sparsely populated farm-to-market road between Wichita Falls and Archer City. Spread over five acres, it was a perfect spot for Gail's beloved horses, and she had hoped it would be a tranquil place for her and Tony to make a clean start.

But it was clear on this scorching July night that Tony had lied about changing his ways. Earlier in the evening, they had met for drinks with Tony's boss from the vacuum cleaner company where he worked as a salesman. As if the revelation that Tony was drinking wasn't bad enough, he began mercilessly belittling her. It was a pattern Gail knew too well, and she finally demanded Tony take her home.

The fight grew more violent at home. Tony rampaged through the house, ripping the phones from the wall. Then he turned on Gail, twisting her arm behind her back, pummeling her with his fists, finally breaking her glasses.

Gail screamed that it was over--this time for good.
Tony shoved her against a wall. "If you leave, I'm going to kill your children, all your friends, then come after you," he said.

Gail broke free and ran to the garage where she locked herself in her pickup truck and tried to figure out what to do next.

Tony seemed to calm down. He walked into the garage, beckoned Gail to roll down the window, and told her that he would leave the house for a few days and give her time to collect her things and move back to Austin. He made a few trips from the house to his pickup truck in the garage, loading his things.

Then something snapped.
Gail looked out of her truck window to see Tony aiming his semi-automatic deer rifle at her head. "If you leave, I will kill you," Tony yelled. Then he pulled a bullet from his pocket, licked it, and slid it into the chamber of the rifle.

Gail ducked down, reached under the seat and pulled out an old Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver she carried when she was on the road. Fearing for her life, she sat up, pointed the gun at Tony--who without her glasses was just a blur--and pulled the trigger.

Tony collapsed with a gushing chest wound. Still conscious, he cursed her.
Gail backed out of the garage and sped away to find a pay phone. At a convenience store several miles away and within Wichita Falls city limits, she called 911 and frantically told the dispatcher that she had shot her husband. She begged the dispatcher to send an ambulance to the house. Then she waited at the convenience store for the police to arrest her.

"I didn't mean for this to happen," a hysterical Gail Bennett said over and over to Betty Vasquez King, the Wichita Falls police officer who responded to her call.

Because the Bennetts lived in Archer County, the incident fell into the Archer County sheriff's jurisdiction. The Archer County sheriff's office, which heard the call go out over the scanner, sent three deputy sheriffs to the Bennett home to investigate.

The Wichita Falls police officer advised the Archer County deputies that she had Gail in custody. A deputy told Vasquez King to place her under arrest, and they would pick her up.

Though he didn't usually work nights, Archer County Sheriff Presley Lamar Pippin, Jr. was cruising the streets listening to police radio when he heard the shooting report. Pippin called his deputies and countermanded the order to arrest Gail. It was an unusual decision, the deputy would later testify, considering the sheriff had not yet talked to the suspect or gotten a statement from her wounded ex-husband.

Pippin drove 20-some miles to the Wichita Falls police station to pick up the suspect. Arriving around 11 p.m., he questioned a rattled Gail for a half hour, then decided to drive her back to the shooting scene.

As they were driving, Bennett, a heavy smoker, asked the sheriff if he would stop for some cigarettes. She steadied her shaking hands on Pippin's while he lit her cigarette--an incidental detail that would later come back to haunt her.

By the time Gail arrived at her house, Tony was gone. Deputies had found him next door and had him transported to a hospital in Wichita Falls. After Gail walked through the bloody scene at home so she could explain to Pippin what happened, Pippin had one of his deputies drive her to the Archer City sheriff's office to take her statement. It was 2:15 a.m. by the time the deputy drove her back home. The deputy told Gail not to leave Archer County until the investigation was complete. He also told her that this case--like all shootings--would eventually be presented before a grand jury, which would determine whether to bring criminal charges against her.

Gail was bone-tired, but too agitated to sleep. She didn't want to stay in the house, but she had nowhere else to go. It was still hours before dawn, and she needed to talk to someone. Her phones were broken and she knew no one in Archer County, so she drove to the nearest store and tried to call a friend in Austin. But she didn't answer.

Gail returned home to find Sheriff Pippin's car in her driveway. He told her he had stopped by to see if she was all right. At first, Gail was grateful for the company and remembered thinking that perhaps in smaller towns law enforcement officials take a more personal interest in people. Then again, she also figured Pippin was there in his official capacity, to question her further.

The deputies had left all her doors and windows open and the lights on, filling her house with moths. Pippin helped Gail clear some of the insects out of the house. Gail then made a pot of coffee, and she and the sheriff sat on the front porch and talked for about an hour.

The sheriff asked Gail a lot of personal questions, about her family, her background, her marriage to Tony. Gail began to feel that the sheriff was staying too long and asked him whether he was on duty all night. He replied that he was, in fact, off duty.

"Don't you have family to go home to?" Gail asked.
The sheriff confided that he too had experienced marital troubles. He told Gail his wife had left him because he was having flashbacks about the Vietnam War, where he served as a Green Beret.

Gail found the sheriff's story and his interest in her personal life troubling.

She told Pippin she needed to get some sleep. Gail had mentioned earlier that she was frightened that Tony might get out of the hospital and try to hurt her. Though Pippin had already learned that Tony's chest wound would keep him in the hospital at least overnight, he kept that information to himself.

Instead, he offered to check around the house and stand vigil outside while Gail fell asleep. Gail headed to the back bedroom and fell into bed, with her jeans, blouse, and turquoise boots still on.

Gail isn't sure how long she was asleep or what woke her up. But she opened her eyes to see Sheriff P.L. Pippin standing over her bed, his naked body illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window over her bed.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Something that will make us both feel better," he replied.
"I don't want to do this," Gail said, according to a police report she would make months later.

She says Pippin kept insisting that it would make them both feel better, as he got on the bed and started to pull off her clothes. When he tried to get her boots off, she sat up and tried to talk him out of it again.

"Please don't do this to me," she said.
"He pushed me over backwards on the bed and got on top of me," she said in her police report. "He started taking the rest of my clothes off. I was trying to push him away. I did not want a violent struggle with him and I was afraid that no matter what I do this is going to happen and if I struggle with him, he would charge me in Tony's shooting."

When Gail realized nothing she could do would stop the sheriff, she asked him to at least "wear a fucking rubber" and grabbed one of Tony's from behind the head of the bed and threw it at Pippin.

"You're not going to tell anyone about this," the sheriff told her. Gail said she wouldn't. As an added precaution, Pippin admonished her to replace the condom so no one--especially Tony--would get suspicious.

When he finished, Pippin told Gail to take a shower. At first she refused, but he repeated his demand. While she was showering, the sheriff slipped out of the house. It was about 5 a.m.

Pippin returned to Gail's house the next night and knocked on her window. She told him to go away, and made sure all the windows and doors were locked. She hid in a closet until he left. Two days later, with the Archer County sheriff's office's permission, Gail Bennett moved back to Austin.

"I was pretty much lost in a fog," she says.
Gail Bennett would not report what Pippin had done to her for several months, fearing that the sheriff would retaliate against her. In September 1990, the Archer County grand jury found that she had acted in self defense in shooting Tony, who had recovered fully. Gail felt a measure of relief and decided she had to tell someone other than her closest friend and daughter about what Pippin had done.

But the assault by a law officer made her afraid to go to the police, so Gail instead visited the Austin Rape Crisis Center, where therapists encouraged her to go to the authorities. She still might never have told the police if Pippin had not kept calling her. At first he said the calls were to keep her abreast of the grand jury proceedings, then later to make sure she had kept silent about the attack. Finally he called to try to see her, ostensibly to return her gun, which had been in her family for generations.

She went to the Austin police department and told her story in a wrenching, tearful session to Sgt. Robert Merrill, a veteran in the sexual crimes unit. Ironically, it was the gun that she used to shoot her abusive husband that would lead to an investigation of Sheriff Pippin for raping her.

"If the sheriff had gotten her the gun some other way, I don't think we would have had a case," says Merrill, a gray-haired officer who has since been transferred to homicide. "He kept calling her at work, insisting he wanted to see her, probably to try his luck one more time, and that scared the devil out of her. It triggered us to get into the case. I don't think she would have come forward. She knows the problems that come up [in a rape case]."

Merrill initially was skeptical of Bennett's story, especially since she waited three months to report it. "But she had an answer for every question I asked her. She jumped through all the traps and passed a polygraph."

Merrill contacted the Texas Rangers to inform them of Gail's allegations against Pippin. What he learned about the Archer County sheriff alarmed him. A Texas Ranger named Bill Gerth told him that Pippin had recently separated from his wife, was under federal investigation for beating up a suspected drug dealer in his custody (he was no-billed by two county grand juries and a federal grand jury in the case), and that he was mentally unstable.

"The ranger believed he was the kind who would kill a witness if he needed to," according to Merrill's report at the time.

Merrill told Gail to take every precaution against retaliation from Pippin--move out of her daughter's home, drive a different car.

Pippin, unaware of Merrill's involvement, called Gail to say he was coming to Austin to attend a Department of Public Safety course and wanted to see her to return her gun. During that conversation, she says she told him for the first time that he had raped her. He apologized, she says. Although she tried to tape the conversation on an office phone, only her voice can be heard on the tape.

They made plans to meet at a coffee shop. Merrill provided her with a tape recorder, which she carried in her purse. Plainclothes police officers sat at tables throughout the restaurant in case something went wrong. Again the taping failed and the conversation is inaudible, even after being enhanced at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. But Gail says she told Pippin again that he had raped her. She told police Pippin responded again by saying he was sorry for forcing himself on her, but he couldn't help himself because she was "so pretty." He handed her her gun in a paper sack.

"Gail was extremely upset and crying after she was able to get away from him," Merrill wrote in his report. "She said that she had to try very hard to keep her temper in check and so would not tell him exactly what she thought of him. After she was able to get away from him and back to us she broke down several times and just cried. She told me that she was angry for all that has happened and all she has been through."

Merrill turned the case over to the district attorney for the three-county region that includes Archer County. Pippin was arrested near the end of October.

Robert Merrill's believing in her restored some of Gail's faith in the law enforcement system. That faith would be short-lived.

In the 1950s, Archer County, the hub of rich oil and cattle production, billed itself as the "Little Oil Capital of Texas." In 1958, there were seven drilling companies, two oil well supply companies, four welding companies, and three well serving companies, according to a county history written by Jack Lofton.

The public library in Archer City, the county seat, was built in part with funds from novelist Larry McMurtry and is decorated with pieces of the sets from the TV movie Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, based on his books that immortalized the charm and tawdriness of the town.

Today there is only one oil company in town--Burns and Bridwell--and it has scaled its personnel back since the '80s oil bust. The only supermarket in town--Thaggert's--closed 18 months ago, leaving the county's 8,000 residents without a place to do their food shopping except convenience stores or Wichita Falls, about 25 miles away.

The handsome, stone Archer County courthouse stands just off Highway 79, the main strip through town where traffic is delayed by only one blinking red light. On the courthouse lawn a towering sign proclaims the Archer City High School football team the State Class A champions. A second glance at the sign reveals that the year the Wildcats went all the way was 1964. Next to the sign is a clock donated by the Lions Club--stopped at 4:45. Inside the courthouse, a water fountain reads: "Absolutely no tobacco products are to be disposed of in here."

Directly across from the courthouse is a burned-out brick shell--the remains of the movie theater made famous by McMurtry's novel and later the movie The Last Picture Show, which was filmed in Archer City. Across the street on the other side of the courthouse is a low, cinderblock building that houses the county sheriff's office.

The sexual assault case against Sheriff P.L. Pippin was presented to the Archer County grand jury in the courthouse in January 1991. Almost everyone on the grand jury knew the sheriff--whom friends call "P.L."--on a first-name basis. Some of them knew the sheriff well enough to ask him during questioning if he was drinking again. "It wasn't a jury of his peers, it was a jury of his kin," says one county resident, who says he was disgusted by how the grand jury acted.

Pippin told the grand jury that Gail had consented to have sexual relations with him, and in fact had come on to him by letting her hand linger on his when he lit her cigarette.

He admitted she protested his advances, but characterized it as "coy," "artificial shyness," and "token verbal resistance," according to a grand jury transcript that became evidence in a later trial.

Pippin admitted that his sleeping with a suspect in a criminal investigation was "a mistake" and an "unfortunate indiscretion." But he painted the rape investigation as part of a political conspiracy to oust him from office. That Gail Bennett, a newcomer to the area when she encountered Pippin, and Austin police officers could be part of a political conspiracy against him was something the grand jury found plausible.

In an unusual move, the grand jury gave the sheriff himself the option of deciding whether it should indict him, thus allowing him a trial to clear his name, or issue a no bill--not indict him. Pippin said he would take a no bill and take his chances on his reputation. The grand jury granted his wish and voted not to indict.

Archer County confirmed its support for Pippin by reelecting him sheriff in 1992.

While Sheriff P.L. Pippin's life went on successfully after the grand jury hearing, Gail Bennett's spiraled out of control. She moved to Corpus Christi and began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the rape, which compounded the trauma of shooting her ex-husband. She's been in therapy almost continuously for the past five years, suffering from insomnia, nightmares, agitation, and obsessive behavior such as frequent showering. She is also fearful of strangers--and of law enforcement officers.

A small woman with bird-like features exaggerated by her over-sized glasses, Gail Bennett looks to have lived far longer than her 43 years. Even before moving to Archer County, Bennett's life was far from easy and untroubled.

Gail was born in Iowa and grew up on an egg farm near Waco, the oldest of four children. Beyond that, she won't share many details about her family, from whom she has been estranged for the past 15 years for reasons she only describes as "personal."

Gail's ticket out of her family was marriage--in 1969--to her high school sweetheart. It was a short, tumultuous marriage that produced a daughter, Melissa.

Gail was in junior college in Waco when she met her second husband "a serious, nose-to-the grindstone" accountant. They were married in the mid 1970s, and the marriage lasted almost 10 years. Shortly after they were married, they moved to Austin so he could finish school. Gail became a legal secretary and together the couple had one son, who was born with heart problems and Down's syndrome, a form of mental retardation.

In the late 1980s, a few years after they divorced, Gail let her son live with his father, although they have joint custody and Gail has remained very involved in his life.

"I had raised him for eight or nine years and I was exhausted," she says. "His father was in a better position financially. His employer was more flexible if he needed time off to tend to his health problems, and he had more family support than I did."

It was about this time that Gail met Tony Marsh Bennett at a party. He was funny and charming. "He could dance like Patrick Swayze," Gail remembers. "He had a magnetic personality."

With her son living with his father and her daughter on her own, Gail left a routine but secure career as a legal secretary to try her hand at concert promotion with her best friend. And, with the pressures of parenting lessened, she finally had time to do the things she loved, like going on long horseback trail rides, which she did frequently with Tony.

But she soon learned that Tony had a darker side, which emerged when he drank to excess. During the two years they were married, Tony battered her physically and verbally off and on, she says. Sometimes she would have to call the cops. At first, she believed that it was somehow her fault; if Tony really loved her, he wouldn't do this. Finally she realized, she says, that she'd prefer "a broken heart instead of a broken face." She asked him for a divorce.

Even before the divorce became final in February 1990, Tony was asking her to come back. "I did love the guy and he was a salesman," Gail says. "He knew how to sell himself. He held my face in his hands, looked deeply in my eyes, and I just melted."

Tony swore he had stopped drinking, and she decided to give him another chance. She even agreed to move with him to Archer County, as long as she could still pursue concert promotion and go back to Austin to see her children. She moved there in May. By July she was less than enamored with the sweltering Archer County summer.

"The weather was awful," she says. "And there were snakes everywhere."
The son of a cowboy, P.L. Pippin, 57, grew up in Albany, Texas, and moved to Archer County after high school. He enrolled in Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, with an interest in history and a passion for the military. He was in ROTC and became the first Midwestern graduate to earn the coveted Army Ranger emblem, according to a long-time friend and college classmate of Pippin who asked his name not be used.

After college, he became a career military man, serving two tours with the Green Berets in Vietnam, where he received five medals for valor. He ultimately attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. Married with three children and living in Archer County, Pippin hoped to retire from the military with a nice pension. But military cutbacks forced him to retire in 1977--six years before his pension would have kicked in. Being pushed out of the Army left him bitter, says his friend, and vulnerable to his two vices--alcohol and women.

He joined Archer County Sheriff's Department as a deputy in 1977 and won the sheriff's election a year later, running as a Democrat. Pippin was defeated as sheriff in 1982, in part because it was widely known that he had a drinking problem. In fact, he wrecked his squad car one night when he was drunk. Having never fully gotten over--financially or emotionally--being let go from the Army, Pippin nursed his wounds with alcohol, says the friend.

Pippin and his first wife divorced, and he began dating a drug counselor named Betty Meek from Wichita Falls who would eventually become his second wife. During a tumultuous period before they married, Pippin got jealous because he believed Betty was seeing another man. He came to her house one night and shot up her garage door with a .22-caliber gun, says Betty Bond, who has since remarried.

"I reported it to the constable at the time, but nothing was ever done," Bond says in a phone interview from her Wichita Falls office, where she is executive director of a drug counseling program.

Despite his courtship behavior, Pippin and Betty eventually married, and she encouraged him to seek treatment for alcoholism. He entered the Veterans Hospital in Waco, where he remained for four weeks, she says.

After successfully swearing off alcohol, Pippin won back his badge as Archer County Sheriff in 1988. This time he ran as a Republican--the first Republican to be elected in the county since Reconstruction.

Small and compactly built, Pippin is intelligent, complex, and seemingly well-mannered. He has a reputation as a strict law-and-order man who prides himself on being tough on drug dealers. But beneath his calm surface, Betty Bond says her ex-husband was deeply troubled. "He was smart, but had no common sense," she says. "He had weird perceptions and a volatile temper."

Pippin had a habit of stockpiling army equipment and food and muttering about having to go to the woods when the war came, and his temper could be explosive.

Her worst encounter with his temper occurred in the summer of 1990--a few days after Pippin met Gail Bennett, Bond recalls. Pippin had been withdrawn for months, she says. He spent his nights driving around town. When he was home, he rarely spoke. He hadn't been interested in sexual relations in a year, she says. He blamed it on his high blood pressure.

"One night I kept calling him on the car phone, asking him to come home so we could talk," Bond says.

"When he finally did come home, I guess he was fed up. He pulled me off the couch and kicked me in the back." Bond says she did not report it because she had reported other abusive episodes to Pippin's deputies, "but they wouldn't do anything."

It was in large part to save her sanity that Gail Bennett continued to seek a way to punish Pippin after the Archer County grand jury failed to indict him. Gail needed to be believed. And she wanted to make sure Pippin would never assault another woman again.

A short while after the grand jury convened, Gail moved from Austin to Corpus Christi and entered therapy. Financial difficulties and her fragile mental state torpedoed her fledgling concert promotion business, and she returned to legal secretarial work. For the next year and a half she saw a psychologist who specialized in treating victims and perpetrators of sex crimes.

"Following an initial period of fear, paralysis, and emotional anesthesia, Ms. Bennett was forced to restructure her entire life, relocate her home, and is still trying to rebuild her confidence and self-esteem," Dr. Sharon Rogers would later write in an affidavit on Gail's behalf.

"The trauma experienced by Ms. Bennett has been compounded by several factors, including the importance of the attacker being a member of a group designated as protectors and the difficulty sustained in bringing any action against the individual."

"Ms. Bennett is a bright, interesting woman who has a lot of energy, which is marked by occasional outbursts of enthusiasm, but is primarily overladen with grief and anxiety," wrote JoAnn Bradshaw, an Austin psychologist Gail visited for a year after returning to Austin from Corpus Christi.

"The grief, as I see it, is caused by the time and happiness lost over the last two years; and the anxiety is caused by her fear and distress regarding who to trust and how to regain control of her life.

"I think the prognosis is favorable, particularly once the legal prosecution of her assailant is accomplished and the past can be safely put behind her."

Failing with the Archer County grand jury, Gail tried prosecution through the U.S. Justice Department, but an assistant U.S. attorney would not pursue the case--"It would be your word against his," she was told.

Finally, almost two years after the attack, she went to see Austin civil rights attorney Tom Kolker, who has his office in a run-down house on Austin's southeast side. Kolker was so shocked by Gail's story that he decided to represent her despite his already crushing caseload.

"It was such an outrageous thing that happened," says Kolker. "I couldn't let it go unaddressed."

In June 1992, Kolker filed a case in Austin federal court accusing Sheriff Pippin of violating Gail Bennett's civil rights--specifically her right to personal security and bodily integrity, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Kolker didn't think it would be an easy case to win. "It's very hard to sue a public official, especially for misconduct," Kolker says. "Most people don't want to believe a public official, especially a police officer, could abuse their power this way. It's too scary a thought."

Of course, what made this case even more difficult was the absence of witnesses. Pippin never denied he had sexual relations with Bennett, but he claimed it was consensual. "The lady enjoyed it," Pippin responded to a question in the interrogatories Kolker sent him while preparing the case.

Kolker also was concerned whether Gail would be emotionally strong enough to testify. "I saw the pain in her when she talked about it in my office," he says. "And that was a private and safe setting."

The case, originally filed in Austin, was transferred to the Northern District of Texas, Wichita Falls division. Though Kolker--and his co-counsel Ed Tuddenham-- originally sought a jury trial, they began to change their minds, fearing that a jury might be biased toward the sheriff.

Pippin's attorneys proposed arbitration, provided they would be allowed to appeal the decision. Kolker and Tuddenham agreed, on the condition that any trial would be before a judge, not a jury. Three Austin lawyers who heard the case in arbitration last September decided against the sheriff. Pippin's lawyers appealed. The case went to a nonjury trial in Wichita Falls in February.

Dallas Federal Judge Joe Kendall, who travels to Wichita Falls once a month to hear cases, presided over the two-day trial of Bennett v. Pippin. On the stand, Gail Bennett repeated the story she had told the police and the grand jury--that the sheriff had forced her to have sexual relations against her wishes.

Pippin and his attorneys maintained that the sex was consensual. Pippin's attorneys bolstered their position with testimony from a bait shop owner who claimed that Gail had acted friendly to the sheriff when she ran into him the next day at her store.

Joe Kendall became a federal judge in the North Texas district in 1992 after stints as a Dallas police officer (for four years), an assistant district attorney, and a state district judge. He includes in his official biography a Mark Twain quote that he said captured the essence of his life: "Always do right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

In a nonjury trial, a judge has leeway to question both sides--in an attempt to "do right." Kendall took full advantage of that opportunity in this case.

Kendall found much of Pippin's testimony hard to swallow. Pippin testified again that Gail had come on to him by letting her hand linger on his while he lit her cigarette.

"About one hour after shooting her husband, she starts coming on to you?" Kendall asked incredulously.

Kendall asked Pippin what he would do if he had found out that one of his deputies had gone to the house of a suspect who "had just been cut loose from Archer County Jail, at 3 in the morning, within five hours after shooting her husband, while you're investigating her, having not talked to the husband to get his side of the story to find out whether it was self-defense or not...and the investigator is out there having sex with your suspect in what could turn out to be a murder case; as sheriff...what disciplinary action would you take...?"

Pippin: "I would probably fire the deputy."
Unlike the Archer County grand jury, Kendall had a hard time believing that there was a conspiracy involving Gail Bennett and other law enforcement agencies to remove Pippin from office. "...The reality is that Austin PD Detective[Robert Merrill] probably had to get a state map out to figure out where Archer County was when he started hearing about this deal," the judge told Pippin. "What in the world would he know about or care about Archer County politics, whether you were the sheriff or Little Joe from Kokomo was the sheriff?"

When both sides rested, Judge Kendall took a deep breath and sighed: "Well, I've been to three goat ropings at the state fair and I don't think I've ever seen a deal like this one."

Kendall could have taken the case under advisement, he told the court, and mail them the verdict. But he said he wanted the defendant to hear what he had to say.

Before issuing the verdict from the bench, he told the courtroom that he was a police officer himself when he was younger. "I think I have a fairly good feel--more so than many sitting in my position--of what sheriffs and law enforcement officers go through," Kendall said. "I wanted to look you right in the eye and just tell you I believe her and I don't believe you."

Calling Pippin's actions "an insidious abuse of police authority," Kendall awarded Gail Bennett $1 million in actual damages, for which Pippin and Archer County are jointly liable. The judge awarded Bennett an additional $1 million in punitive damages against Pippin.

"Contrary to the sheriff's belief, the Court finds that when a woman says 'no' it means 'no'," Kendall wrote in his decision. "The Court finds that P.L. Pippin Jr. had sex with this woman without her consent and raped her as surely as if he had pulled his gun on her and forcibly compelled the sex."

The trial and Judge Kendall's judgment rocked Archer City. Not even Pippin's friends knew the details of Gail Bennett's allegations until they were revealed during the trial. Pippin had told only his wife, Betty, what happened. She stood by him during the grand jury hearing; then they separated for good and divorced.

Like many residents, Pippin's college friend says he thought that all Pippin was accused of was touching the woman inappropriately.

"During the trial I about wanted to crawl under the carpet," Pippin's friend remembers. "It seemed to me it was premeditated and planned--'this is something that will make us both feel better.'"

But again, like many residents of Archer County, this man still doesn't believe the sheriff raped Gail Bennett. He thinks, like many people in the county, that Pippin has been punished too severely for an "indiscretion."

"The judge made it sound like he held a gun to her head. P.L. didn't force her," the friend says. "She was in a highly emotional state and was pliable and then resented it afterwards. He misused his power, fell to lust. Now she's going to get rich off of this."

Pippin supporters also believe the theory put forward by his lawyers, that Gail Bennett seduced the sheriff in order "to buy insurance against being prosecuted" for shooting her ex-husband.

Pippin refused to be interviewed by the Observer. "The only thing I have to say is that Gail Bennett is a liar," he said over the phone from his office. "I did not do it [rape her]. And I passed a polygraph [taken after the trial] that proved I didn't."

Still, a fair number of people in the county believe Gail Bennett and feel Pippin betrayed them and his office. Many are women who say the federal court's findings leave them with a lingering fear of law enforcement officers. What these residents find most troubling--as does Gail Bennett--is that Sheriff P.L. Pippin is still the most powerful law enforcement officer in Archer County.

And nearly everyone in Archer County worries about how the county, its oil prosperity a dim memory, will pay for the huge federal judgment if Pippin and Archer County fail in their appeal.

The old men who spend their days spitting tobacco and shooting the breeze outside the Walsh Brothers service station--a group the younger guys call the Dead Pecker Club--are typical in the county for thinking their sheriff got a raw deal at the hands of a federal judge.

Fred Walsh, his mouth ringed with brown tobacco stains, says, "I don't think it was his fault."

"I think it was just a bunch of frame-up," agrees Fred's twin brother, Frank. "I don't think they ought to have stuck him at all. A woman generally brings that on herself. She was just trying to get even with him. She was already in trouble and trying to get out of it."

The Walsh brothers are about to close their 50-year-old service station and retire to a life of fishing. Like other residents, they worry how the county will pay for its share of the judgment if it loses on appeal. The county has a $500,000 law enforcement liability insurance policy, which is already being tapped to cover the mounting legal bills.

"If the county has to float a million-dollar bond issue to pay the sheriff's fund, people will be mad," says Pippin's old friend. "With oil and ranching at a low ebb, they can't afford to pay for their sheriff to go out and have some fun. Everyone likes and admires P.L. Pippin. But they're frustrated with him."

Gail Bennett has her own worries. Beyond concerns about losing on appeal, she is angry that Pippin has been able to remain in office. Archer County Attorney R.B. "Burk" Morris has not initiated any proceedings to remove Pippin because the official misconduct occurred during Pippin's last term in office, Morris says. The so-called forgiveness doctrine in the Local Government Code prohibits removal for acts committed prior to the official's most recent election.

"Nothing has changed about his life," says Gail. "He himself has not been brought to justice."

Several people, including Austin police officer Merrill, say that they had hoped the FBI would get involved and convince the Justice Department to present a criminal case against Pippin to a federal grand jury. But neither federal agency has shown interest.

Gail Bennett is between secretarial jobs. She lost her last job when she had to take off too much time for the trial and the subsequent mediation sessions the plaintiff and defendant engaged in to see if they could agree on financial terms. The mediation resolved nothing, she says.

"Now I'm just trying to take back the reins of my life," says Gail. An important step, she says, was filing the lawsuit in her own name instead of using Jane Doe. "It made me feel like a survivor, not a victim."

To that end, Gail says she hopes to help other survivors of rape and plans to become actively involved in the Austin Rape Crisis Center. She recently appeared in a public service announcement for the center and was a featured speaker at the "Take Back the Night Rally" held in late April at an Austin park.

After the attack, she told the crowd of several hundred, "I wished that I had just sat in my truck and let my husband blow my head off. Any initial relief I had felt at successfully defending myself against an abusive mate had been suddenly erased by my inability to prevent a profound violation of everything I believed in--respect for authority, trust in law enforcement to protect me from danger. My belief in myself was also stolen. Rape didn't happen to people like me, so who was I now?...I was forced to redefine myself now as helpless, weak, ignorant--a victim."

Gail told the crowd that while growing up, her male role model had been her grandfather, who, for many years, had been a sheriff in Oklahoma. It was her grandfather who gave her the Smith and Wesson .38 that saved her life, with strict instructions that she was never to point it at anyone unless her life was in danger.

"One sheriff had saved me," she said, "and now another sheriff had taken my life, as I knew it, away.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >