Desoto Is Having Trouble Firing a Cop Who Helped Silence His Son's Rape Accuser
The Desoto Police Department's first attempt to run off Sergeant James Henrise came around 1996. Henrise and a fellow cop had come forward with evidence they claimed showed that Chief John Horvath had improperly meddled in a seven-year-old murder investigation and used public funds to finance a family vacation to Europe.
The accusations were never proven, and Henrise was briefly suspended. When he returned, he claimed in a federal lawsuit that was ultimately thrown out, he was relegated to menial duties including handicapped parking enforcement, subjected to internal affairs investigations and otherwise punished and harassed as he continued to press the accusations.
Fast-forward 18 years to early 2014. Henrise is still on the force, having outlasted both Horvath and his successor, but his run-ins with management weren't over. On the contrary, newly minted Desoto Police Chief Joseph Costa would soon do what his predecessors never would: He gave Henrise an "indefinite suspension," the functional equivalent in the civil service system to termination.
A reasonable observer might wonder what took so long. The specific incident for which Costa was handing down punishment happened in February 2009, more than five years before Henrise was indefinitely suspended.
According to court documents, Henrise's son, also named James Henrise, was accused by Glenn Heights police of sexually assaulting a woman and punching the woman's five-year-old daughter on February 22, 2009.
At around 9 p.m. the next evening, the elder Henrise drove James Jr.'s common law wife to a nearby gas station/convenience store. They had with them an affidavit of non-prosecution, which had been produced using Henrise's computer and printer, and they asked the victim to sign it. Finding no notary at the gas station, Henrise Sr. went to pick up his girlfriend, a notary public and dispatcher for the Lancaster Police Department, took her to her office to pick up the notary stamp, then drove them to a restaurant where the victim signed the affidavit, attesting that she'd been "compensated for any inconvenience this incident caused me" in the form of $200, according to court documents. He later made a copy of the affidavit, which he had notarized by an on-duty Desoto PD employee, and personally delivered it to the Glenn Heights Police Department.
Desoto PD opened an internal affairs investigation in October 2009, not to look into allegations of witness tampering in his son's sexual assault case, which had not yet reached department brass, but to examine whether he had acted improperly during his son's sexual assault trial. Costa, who at the time was a Dallas County sheriff's deputy, complained that Henrise had acted unprofessionally and unethically during the trial by sitting at his defense table and accompanying him into the court's holdover area, leading the bailiff to assume he was a private investigator.
Three weeks into the court-appearance investigation, a victim's advocate with the Dallas County DA's office told Desoto police that Henrise was "part of an attempt to force the victim [in his son's sexual assault case] to force the victim to drop the case by making her sign a non-prosecution affidavit." Internal affairs investigators promptly turned the investigation over to the Texas Rangers, who submitted a report to the Dallas County District Attorney's office on August 5, 2010. Henrise was indicted for obstruction of justice on November 10, 2011, more than a year later. The case eventually fell apart because the victim refused to testify, and the charge was dropped in April of this year.
Henrise, whose attorney could not be reached for comment, has admitted to investigators that he ferried his son's girlfriend around when she was trying to convince Junior's accuser to drop the case, and that he provided the equipment used to to produce the affidavit. He also hired an attorney for his son and helped with some of the legal filing. But he has maintained in interviews with investigators that his dealings have been above-board and that he was careful to limit his role in persuading his son's accuser to drop her case, to avoid crossing the line into witness tampering.
Costa, however, was convinced that Henrise had crossed all sorts of lines. As soon as he joined Desoto PD in 2012, he began tracking Henrise's criminal case closely. In January 2014, apparently tired of waiting on the courts, he decided to "resurrect" the internal affairs investigation, this time subjecting Henrise to a polygraph examination to "get an insight into his judgment on all of his acts, and to see if he had ever lied at any time."
The polygraph test indicated that he had. The machine spit out a finding of "deception indicated" on Henrise's answers on two questions: whether he had interfered with the criminal investigation into his son, and whether he lied to Desoto PD's internal affairs investigators. Costa met with Henrise on March 12.
"[Y]ou advised me that you believe your actions did not cross the 'line' and that you believe you didn't do anything wrong," Costa wrote in Henrise's termination letter. "I told you that the 'line' you refer to is one that you created and that the 'line' is actually set and defined by Department Policies and Directives, Rules and Regulations. I told you, among other things, that the totality of your acts in this case went way beyond what I would consider minimal and peripheral. It was very serious misconduct. I specifically mentioned the actions involving Rebecca Caballero and your deliver of documents to Glenn Heights PD to be more than just being on the sidelines. Not only did you have Rebecca Caballero notarize documents while she was on duty at Desoto PD, but you then delivered these documents to Glenn Heights PD with the intent to cause the criminal case against your son be dismissed or otherwise not prosecuted. I told you that when you weight all of your actions together, those actions were serious enough to warrant serious discipline, up to and including indefinite suspension."
That reasoning seems sound enough, but there was a problem. Civil service rules for cops and firefighters in Texas place strict deadlines on when and why an officer can be indefinitely suspended. Generally speaking, a police chief has 180 days to suspend an officer for an infraction. A criminal indictment generally stops the clock, which is partially reset if there's a conviction, but Henrise wasn't convicted and Desoto PD, with an assist from the Dallas County DA's office, which inexplicably sat on the Texas Rangers' investigation for 15 months, let the 180-day window expire before the indictment. Earlier this month, a civil-service hearing officer overturned Henrise's indefinite suspension. It's not that she thought Henrise shouldn't be punished. On the contrary, she writes that the city "proved the truth of the charges and that the indefinite suspension was appropriate." But the city missed its deadline, and it wasn't even close.
Henrise's final punishment? A 15-day suspension, then a return to duty. The punishment "does not strike me as matching the misconduct but appears to be the least-unappealing of the" choices allowed under state law. The city of Desoto also doesn't think that punishment is sufficient. It filed a lawsuit on Friday arguing that the hearing officer overstepped her authority and seeking to have her decision overturned. The city has not yet returned a call seeking comment.
For now, barring a reversal of the hearing officer, it appears Henrise will get off with a slap on the wrist, just like his son. The sexual assault charge against Henrise Jr. was knocked down to misdemeanor assault. He pleaded guilty in 2010 and paid a $500 fine and $236 in court costs. He may face a stiffer penalty if he's convicted of a July 6, 2012 incident in which he's accused of getting drunk, felling his 36-weeks-pregnant girlfriend (a different woman than helped him beat the sexual-assault charge) with a punch to the eye, dragging her by the hair into their kitchen, and then kicking and punching her repeatedly was down, landing several blows on her bulging stomach. The trial is scheduled for next week.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.