Competence on Trial: The Strange Odyssey of Serial Dallas Lawsuit Filer Lester Ruston

Every decent-sized courthouse in the country has its own serial pain in the ass, the guy who thinks nothing of suing the kids who threw a ball over his fence or the cat who pooped in his yard. But there's a special subset of filing addicts: the inmates who while away their time in the pokey filing kooky pro se motions against Oprah, the CIA and Jesus. They undoubtedly belong in the hands of competent mental health professionals, but until our prison system learns how to deal appropriately with mental illness, we have stories like that of Lester Jon Ruston: a Dallas man crazy enough to believe that Katie Couric is stalking him yet just sane enough to file hundreds of often-coherent of lawsuits against seemingly everyone he's ever met.

Ruston's trouble with the law began in May 2004, when he was charged with threatening to kill North Texas magistrate judge Irma Ramirez. He had left her what court documents called a "rambling and profane" voicemail, telling her to "look out her window at the black helicopters circling her building from the U.S. Navy" and accusing her "of sending a Marine to to try to murder [the caller] for George Bush." He told the judge that next week she would be taken to Scotland, walked up a plank with a rope around her neck and "stretched from a red neck to a long neck." He gave her 24 hours to resign, uttered the word "die" several times and repeatedly called her a "'fucking whore' and a 'fucking cunt.'"

The call was traced back to room 102 of the Royal Inn in Carrollton, where Ruston had stayed for three days, including the night the call was placed. Ramirez told investigators that she knew Ruston's name. He was a "frequent filer" of suits in her court -- including ones against Dallas County, Bush and the city of Carrollton. In 2001, Ruston had been accused him of making threats against a Secret Service agent named Jeff Elmore. When he was arrested, Ruston was in the process of attempting to load a crossbow with "metal bolts to fire at the SS agents," records show.

Ruston was arrested in May 2004 for the threats against Ramirez. He readily admitted that he had left the message but claimed he would never actually try to hurt her. In initial hearings after his arrest, though, Ruston claimed again that Ramirez was trying to help cover up a murder-for-hire plot against him.

In May of 2005, a forensic psychologist with the U.S. Bureau of prisons testified at a competency hearing that Ruston suffered from mental illness, "specifically delusional disorder prosecutorial type." But by September of 2006, he was somehow judged competent to stand trial. The doctor who'd last examined him, James Wolfson, urged the court to prosecute the case quickly, because he wasn't sure how long Ruston's sense-making would actually last. By mid-October 2006, Ruston had been found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered back into a mental institution.

But they hadn't heard the last of him. In February 2007, Ruston demanded to represent himself in his appeals, and a magistrate judge again somehow found that he was competent to do so. At that hearing, Ruston told the court: "I've been competent since the day I was arrested. I have a stack of medical records that have been suppressed this entire case that show no mental illness and complete competence."

A month later, Ruston headed into a hearing on whether he could be released. Wolfson, the doctor, told the court that he believed Ruston suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was refusing medication and wouldn't accept a mental illness diagnosis. When Ruston cross-examined Wolfson, he asked him whether the doctor was aware that the duties of a magistrate judge include conspiracy to commit murder, if Wolson had contact with the Secret Service and if he had looked into Ruston's lineage to see if he was descended from Scottish royalty.

That line of questioning aside, the strongest continuing evidence of Ruston's mental illness lies in the many pro se motions he filed -- various petitions to the court that Ruston has penned on his own behalf since the first year of his incarceration. Among his 2007 motions was one alleging that Wolfson had been "tampered with" by Katie Couric. In 2007, Wolfson said, Ruston's filings were, on the whole, "getting a little stranger than what they had been before."

Overall, Ruston has filed about 115 motions in his seven years as an inmate. He's filed motions against the FBI and Secret Service, Wolfson, seemingly everyone in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Plano ISD. Board of Trustees, and, of course, Bush. Pro se motions cost money, but he was able to get paying by filing them in forma pauperis, Latin for "I need to do this on the cheap."

In June of 2007, Ruston made Office of Court Administration's list of Vexatious Litigants, and was barred from filing any more suits against the City of Plano, the Dallas Police Department or the Dallas City Attorney's office. He's also barred from filing any more pro se motions in forma pauperis unless he's "in imminent danger of serious physical injury." We're just not sure that will discourage him.

Ruston remains incarcerated at a low-security federal correction facility in Seagoville. Late last month, more than seven years after his arrest, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied yet another appeal, in which he disputed his lack of competency and asked to be freed from custody. The same week, he sent the Observer a letter that featured, among other things, a photograph of an elephant with Katie Couric's head pasted on to the body and cartoon strips onto which he'd added his own speech bubbles, mostly with the characters repeating various combinations of the words "cunt" and "faggot."

That same week, we spoke with a secretary who works for a local judge. She told us that their office still gets a lot of mail from Ruston. Most of it, she said, bears his trademark slogan along the bottom each page: "Don't mess with Les."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan