It was a stunning triumph. Lupe Valdez, a Latina lesbian who had toiled for decades as an obscure federal agent, won election in 2004 as the sheriff of Dallas County after a series of scandals dogged the incumbent Jim Bowles. Sprung from a family of migrant workers, the diminutive Democratic victor suddenly garnered nationwide attention at a time when voters across the country were overwhelmingly approving anti-gay referenda. EvenTheGuardian
Sheriff Lupe Valdez
in London took notice of the "the unlikely sheriff in Bush's backyard."
But if, as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said, campaigns are poetry--marked by inspirational stories and sweeping promises--the actual business of governing can be dreary, morbid prose. Less than a month into Valdez's tenure, Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher enlisted an outside consultant to report on the health conditions at the Dallas County jail. The county had just been served with a lawsuit filed by representatives of three mentally ill inmates who died or became gravely ill while incarcerated. The consultant, Dr. Michael Puisis, confirmed the county's worst fears: Both the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, and the jail's medical provider, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB), are responsible for a chaotic system where ailing inmates routinely fail to receive even rudimentary care, often ignored until they're at the brink of death.
Puisis, who had served as the medical director for the Cook County Jail in Chicago, concluded that poorly trained guards continually failed to properly diagnose inmates when they first arrive at the facility. Lacking adequate policies and procedures, if not basic common sense, a harried medical staff neglected those who were clearly ailing. The consultant even chronicled one man who died after he did not receive any follow-up care for a variety of chronic illnesses. Referring to the overall system of health care at the jail, Puisis called it a form of "systematic incompetence."
Nobody could really blame this on the new sheriff. These were conditions that had existed for years. Still, following the release of the report, which has enormous legal implications for the county, officials at Parkland Memorial Hospital wanted to talk to Valdez. At the time, the hospital was in charge of monitoring UTMB, but as it tried to investigate the conditions that Puisis repeatedly called "dangerous," they found that Valdez's Sheriff's Department wasn't ready for prime time.
"The chaos and disarray of the SD is discouraging," Kristin Branam, Parkland's director of program contacts, wrote to Sharon Phillips, a hospital vice president, in an e-mail obtained by the Dallas Observer. "We might consider asking for an interview with the sheriff herself. I am told that she is refusing to see just about everybody."
Nearly one year later, U.S. Department of Justice investigators were interviewing the sheriff about health care at the jail. Sources say they were mostly concerned with the performance of UTMB; however, they felt that Valdez should have to answer for the plight of inmates in her custody. In the past, Valdez has directed pointed questions about jail health care to its medical provider, which is now Parkland. The Department of Justice has made it clear that the care of inmates at the jail is her responsibility, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Nearly 18 months into her tenure as sheriff, Valdez has turned from an inspirational icon in the making into another public official ducking accountability. Averse to the limelight and meeting with reporters, local advocates and even her own employees, she remains a mystery. She may turn around her troubled department yet, but there's one thing we know for certain: Valdez is not the kind of hands-on, take-charge, dynamic leader an electorate typically chooses to run a troubled office. She speaks softly and doesn't carry much of a stick.
While Valdez inherited demoralized employees and a jail that had been under-funded and short-staffed for years, no one can point to what exactly she's done to improve her department. Under her watch, the jail has failed two more state inspections--one more than it had during the entire 19-year tenure of her predecessor. She also has displayed a propensity to slip into the background whenever her department endures a batch of bad headlines. Valdez doesn't attend key public meetings involving the department and hasn't given her feedback to county officials about the courts' and jail's woefully buggy computer system or its former medical provider, both of which affect her jail more than just about any factor. And while the jail's record of treating mentally ill inmates remains its most serious problem, Valdez has yet to meet with some of the city's most important mental health organizations.
By all accounts, Valdez is honest, hard-working and well-intentioned. She has good relationships with the county commissioners and surrounds herself with top-shelf managers. She may become the smart, effective reformer voters hoped they were getting when her election victory became a national story. But to some, it's as if it hasn't dawned on Valdez that--what do you know--she really is the sheriff of Dallas County.
"She's never crossed the line from being a paid bureaucrat to being an elected public servant," says Jose Plata, who served as her political consultant when she ran in 2004. "I truly don't think she understands that she should be out in front--or maybe she just can't stand the heat. I don't know."
To her supporters, Valdez is merely publicity-shy, preferring to work behind the scenes while careful not to roil the county commissioners who control her department's purse strings. It's this mild-mannered approach that paved the way for a $5 million budget increase for her department. They also praise her for not exacting revenge against the employees who supported her opponent, Danny Chandler, a seemingly unremarkable gesture that's not always extended in the petty world of Dallas County politics.
Most of all, they say, Valdez has quietly restored a sense of normalcy to the department after the final years of Bowles, which saw him routinely battle the commissioners and his employees, face an indictment alleging he misused campaign funds and beat back calls for his resignation.
"Her biggest challenge has been overcoming the stigma she inherited when she came in," says Kate Menges, a Republican activist, past chair of the North Texas Crime Commission and a member of Valdez's transition team. "She's come in to a low-morale sinking ship, and she has had to rebuild the ship and put it back to smooth sailing. I think she's done a wonderful job."
County Commissioner Maureen Dickey concedes that while some wish Valdez would keep a higher profile, the sheriff has quietly been very open to new, reform-minded programs at the jail. "From my view, she is a person who has real compassion for the people in the jail and really wants to see that they are helped," Dickey says. "From the standpoint of caring about the inmates, there has been a definite improvement."
But Dickey acknowledges that she is not on the front lines. Those who witness how the jail operates on a daily basis, from advocates to judges to lawyers, don't see what exactly the sheriff has done to fix the entrenched problems at the lockup. To some, she's just not up to the challenge of reforming a jail whose conditions were grim enough to attract the attention of the U.S. Justice Department.
"I can't think of one thing she has changed," says defense attorney Deandra Grant. "I don't think she was qualified for that job to begin with. It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. I think she just took a job that was too big for her."
Jim Bowles was everything Lupe Valdez is not, the kind of back-slapping Republican warhorse who announced his political campaign at a fish fry. For nearly 20 years, he had a stranglehold on the job. The jail routinely passed inspection with the state while the facility's medical providers took the heat whenever the sad plight of ailing inmates snagged the attention of the local press.
In 2003, Bowles' fortunes began to turn. County commissioners began squabbling with him about overtime pay, which ran $7 million over budget. Employees complained of low morale. Later that year a special prosecutor and the FBI began investigating Bowles' salutary relationship with Jack Madera, a longtime friend who won a $20 million food service contract from the Sheriff's Department while he had lavished thousands of dollars in dinners and trips on Bowles.
At the same time, disturbing stories of inmate neglect began to abound. In February 2003, the sister of Clarence Lee Grant, a 51-year-old inmate who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, found her brother weak, disheveled and barely able to speak. She was horrified and informed the guards about her brother's condition. They allegedly told her that he was fine. Two days later, Grant was dead.
That same year, Kennedy Nickerson, another inmate with schizophrenia, was released from the jail, allegedly without medication or notice to his family. Five days later he was found on the street and rushed to Baylor hospital suffering from seizures and a 108-degree fever.
Then there was the case that would ultimately prove to be the tipping point for Bowles and the Sheriff's Department--a case of inmate neglect so astounding that no one could deny that the county had a serious problem on its hands. James Monroe Mims, who had been found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial for a shooting nearly 30 years ago, suffered severe renal failure in 2004 after guards turned off the water in his cell. Mims had earlier flooded his cell. Although the jail and medical staff knew of Mims' condition, he did not receive his prescribed anti-psychotic medication nor any kind of follow-up care, which contributed to his inability to alert the guards about his lack of water. A report by the Sheriff's Department's internal affairs unit, which investigated the incident, found that both the guards and the medical staff failed at key junctures during Mims' tortured stay at the jail and concluded that the severely mentally ill inmate "slipped through the cracks."
One month after Mims nearly died, Parkland officials were stunned to learn that it was business as usual at Bowles' Sheriff's Department. "The practice of cutting off water to a cell and leaving the prisoner without access to water continues," Kristin Branam wrote in an e-mail, dated May 13, 2004, to a colleague. "The events that led to the crisis with Mims could easily occur again in the current climate of frustration and lack of leadership in the Sheriff's Department."
Branam continued, "I am sure that I do not have an adequate understanding of the political undercurrents that influence this situation, but I morally feel obligated to expose and demand correction for inhumane practices in the jail."
In March 2004, Bowles' bumpy reign as sheriff came to an end when his long-term deputy Danny Chandler defeated him in the Republican primary. The next day, Bowles was indicted on charges that he misused $100,000 in campaign donations. The indictment was later thrown out, but by then the damage to Bowles' reputation was done.
A 29-year veteran of the department, Chandler was expected to triumph easily over his unknown Democratic opponent. A senior agent with the Department of Homeland Security who also worked for the U.S. Customs Service, Valdez had trouble winning over her own family.
"When she told me she wanted to run, I told her she was dreaming," says her brother Ramiro Valdez, who recounts this story lovingly as a testament to his sister's resolve. "You don't have any name recognition; you don't have any support; you don't have any money."
Although seemingly opposites, Valdez and Chandler engaged in a relatively civil campaign, with Chandler contrasting his tenure at the department with Valdez's lack of management or supervisory experience in her 25-year career in federal law enforcement. At first glance, Valdez's background gave no indication that she could run a sheriff's office in a major urban county. But Valdez effectively stressed that only an outsider could come in and reform the troubled jail. It didn't hurt that she knew how to press the flesh.
"Lupe Valdez was the hardest-working campaigner I could have imagined," says Randy Mayeux, a political consultant who served on her campaign staff. "She had a remarkable circle of loyal volunteers around her--people who loved her and looked up to her. We had staff who worked really long hours, and she would match anybody."
As the election hit the final turn, the lame duck Bowles continued to snipe at Chandler while generating an additional bout of bad publicity for the office after allegedly demoting employees who supported Chandler during the primary. Critics called for the sheriff to step down. Against that backdrop of vicious party infighting, a health crisis at the jail and an imploding Republican incumbent, Valdez eked out a narrow victory.
"It was the right time and place," says political consultant Plata. "The county was sick of the scandals with the Sheriff's Department and how the county was handling it."
You likely won't hear of Valdez granting lucrative contracts to friends or demoting dissenters. The members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, who had become so disenchanted with Bowles that they cut his paltry budget, like Valdez. In many ways, she is the antithesis of her predecessor. And yet no one can say how the jail, which is her biggest responsibility, has changed under her watch. Meet the new boss, not quite as different as you might think from the old boss.
"The level of complaints and problems has gone on at the same rate," says Lawrence Priddy, an attorney with Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit that helps the mentally ill and is assisting in the Mims lawsuit against the county. "And that certainly reflects on the sheriff's office. It's a complex relationship between the medical provider and the sheriff's office, but ultimately the sheriff is responsible."
In March, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards flunked the Dallas County jail system for the third year in a row and the second straight under Valdez, even after she secured $5 million in additional funding from the county. The state agency wrote up the jail for overcrowding and not having enough staff--two recurring deficiencies that reflect on how poorly the county has historically funded the jail. This can't be blamed on Valdez. Inspectors also reported that inmates still are not receiving medical care on a timely basis, which points to the facility's medical provider. But the state cited the jail for other frustrating violations including problems with the smoke detection system and for bailiffs walking into courtroom holding cells with their weapons. That's against state regulations.
"How come state investigators and the Department of Justice can walk through the jail and instantly spot deficiencies and violations and not the sheriff?" asks one county employee.
Former criminal Judge Dan Wyde says that regardless of what you think about Bowles, the jail passed state inspections regularly until the last year of his watch. Under Valdez, the jail system has failed both times. "Has she proven she could run a jail over the last 18 months?" Wyde asks.
Raised in a family of migrant farm workers, Valdez couldn't have predicted she'd one day have a more than $90 million budget, 1,700 officers and as many as 8,000 inmates under her custody and control. But her mother, Tere, risked losing her family to help her daughter find a better life. For years, Tere, husband Plinio and the couple's children would leave San Antonio in March and work the fields of farms in Michigan and Minnesota. Often living out of a tent, the Valdez family would pick green beans, apples, berries, beets and turnips. Each year the children would have to drop out of school and quickly fell behind their classmates.
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.
"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.
"I suggested to her that she have some type of public statement during the AIS scandal," Plata says. "She said something derogatory about the public. I said, 'You better remember who put you there.'"
Plata wouldn't reveal what exactly Valdez said, but he's clearly soured on his friend and former client. "She's closed the door to a lot of folks. She's very hard-headed," he says.
But while Valdez was avoiding the public eye, she was doing what she could to deal with the mess behind the scenes. At the height of the AIS foul-up, when the county might have been better served recording its criminal information on Post-It Notes, Valdez was working alongside first-year deputies, relocating inmates whose information was lost in the system. "She just stepped up and said, 'What needs to be done?' And someone said, 'Well, these guys need to be moved to the West Tower,' and she just did it," says Ben Roberts, the president of the Dallas Sheriff's Fraternal Order of Police. "There were guys who had been there for 15 years and they couldn't pick Bowles out of a line-up."
Still, Roberts acknowledges that the rank-and-file would have liked Valdez to publicly address the situation. "We thought she should be out there, but she didn't think it was necessary to be public about it."
Scott Chase, a recent candidate for county commissioner who served on Valdez's transition team, says that the sheriff had her reasons for not coming out in front of the AIS issue. "I think a lot of her advisors thought she should have been more aggressive stating what the facts are," he says. "But she's not that confrontational a person, and to get out in front of it she would have gotten crosswise with the commissioners who control her budget."
There are times, however, when a sheriff has to be confrontational for the good of her department. A county employee says, with astonishment, that Valdez has never given first-person feedback to the commissioners court about the still-troubled AIS program. Nor did she ever talk to them personally about UTMB even as allegations continued that inmates were not receiving medication. Peritz says Valdez has a liaison to the court on both AIS and UTMB issues. "They spoke for the sheriff at her instruction," he says.
The department's various unions also touch on the theme of Valdez's low profile. For many, Executive Chief Jesse Flores, hired by Valdez last November, has become the go-to guy. "We've been cut off from the sheriff," says Roberts, who likes Valdez. "We're to take all our concerns to the executive chief, but in our opinion that's not such a bad thing. He's a real decision-maker."
Interestingly, the minority unions at the Sheriff's Department are the most troubled by her leadership style. "She's not accessible at all," says Mark Robinson, president of the Dallas County Peace Officers, a largely African-American union. "She doesn't have an open-door policy, which is what we were accustomed to."
The National Latino Peace Officers Association's Dallas chapter feuded with the county's first Latina sheriff last year after claiming that the department's DWI task force selectively targeted Hispanic neighborhoods, resulting in a disproportionate number of Hispanic drivers being arrested for drunken driving. Even Anglo officers have complained that the task force was unfairly going after Hispanics, in part because they were less likely to contest the charges. Peritz says the department ordered an investigation of the union's claims and found them to be unfounded, but the Dallas chapter insists that a problem exists. "This pattern is deeply disturbing, as is your repeated refusal to take corrective measures," reads a letter from a union official to Valdez. "Sheriff Valdez, it is far more irresponsible to allow your deputies to abuse the public trust. It is far more troubling that you have let nearly a year go by without rectifying this situation."
The theme of Valdez's lack of hands-on management style came up again this week when the county auditor's office released the Sheriff's Department's overtime expenses for the first half of the 2006 fiscal year. From October 2005 to March 2006, the department had nearly 35 detention service officers earn more than $15,000 each in overtime, almost as much as they earned in non-overtime pay. One jail employee made an incredible $35,000 in overtime pay for the six-month period, with two others making more than $20,000.
Peritz explains that the department has been forced to pay overtime costs in order to adequately staff the jail and keep up with state standards. Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield, however, says that the department is just about fully staffed and that Valdez, not unlike her predecessor, is paying scant attention to overtime costs.
"Overtime is just ridiculous. These numbers are just ridiculous," Mayfield says. "There's very little management being exercised."
After it became clear that the health care crisis at the jail was not going to magically disappear, the U.S. Justice Department announced in November that it would investigate health and sanitation at the jail. Justice, which finished the bulk of its investigation earlier this spring, is expected to deliver its strongest words about the county's former medical provider, UTMB. The department also will likely single out the county's malfunctioning computer system for sanction. It's not clear what exactly they're going to tell us about our sheriff, although Justice Department investigators have noted problems with the operation of the jail as well, according to a county employee. In any case, whether the Department of Justice chooses to apportion blame among Valdez, the medical provider and county or if it just brands them together as a part of a monolithic jail-health industrial complex, few people expect that the agency will merely slap everyone's collective wrist.
"There's little likelihood DOJ will let them off the hook easily," says Mark Haney, who is one of the attorneys representing Mims and who has talked to investigators about the jail.
Through her spokesman, Valdez declined to answer any questions about the Justice Department's investigation. On the subject of jail health, however, she says that Chief Deputy Edgar McMillan, who is responsible for inmate detention, issued a written directive last year giving supervisors the authority to take action whenever they believe the medical department has failed its duties, "even to the point of sending the affected inmate to the hospital."
But a Sheriff's Department employee points out that Valdez has made no significant changes concerning how officers and supervisors are trained. This is a significant issue, especially considering that the department's own internal affairs investigators blamed the guards after Mims went without water. Through her spokesman, Valdez does not specify any change she's made in training other than those mandated by law. Insiders say the sheriff has no chance to improve the operation of the jail if she fails to overhaul how the jailers approach their jobs.
"There is a big difference in providing the minimum standards required to keep an employee licensed and providing extra training to improve things," says one employee at the Sheriff's Department.
In interviews with guards and supervisors, many of them are quick to pin the blame for the jail's problems on UTMB for failing to grasp the enormity of health problems at a big urban jail like Dallas. But for families of inmates who have died, there is plenty of blame to go around.
In February 2005, Alice Lynch-Fullen visited her brother Christopher Lynch at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center after he was arrested on rape charges in Grand Prairie. When Fullen saw her brother, she saw ligature marks on his neck suggesting he had tried to hang himself. She begged him, "Don't let me bury you; I can't bury you."
He was not responsive.
Desperate and distraught over her brother's mental state, Fullen pleaded with guards to look after him. "I said I wasn't going to leave until I talked to someone, and they laughed at me."
Fullen finally met with a sergeant who sent two guards to look at her brother. The guards radioed back and told her that Lynch said what his sister thought were ligature marks was really a rash. "I told her it's not a rash. I used to be a nurse. And they said 'You're just babying him.'"
Lynch was later convicted on multiple counts of rape, and if you think that whatever last happened to him behind bars is just punishment, consider that his plight as a ward of Dallas County has been shared by people charged with simple assault and driving with a suspended license--innocent and guilty alike. Or forget about him and think about his family. To Fullen, her brother was a giant teddy bear of a man, a loving son and father who rebuilt their parent's home after it burned.
Throughout Lynch's stay in jail, Fullen and her parents along with Lynch's wife continued to receive letters from jail that hinted at suicidal tendencies. Over the next few months, the sister continued to plead with jail officials to put her brother on suicide watch. They refused. On October 10, while Fullen was at the Texas State Fair with her family, a detective with the Sheriff's Department told her that Christopher Lynch was dead.
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"I started screaming in the middle of the state fair. People are staring, and I'm just saying, 'Chris is dead, Chris is dead.'"
The jail would later tell her that her brother committed suicide, overdosing on nortriptyline, an anti-depressant that had been prescribed to him. Like so many jail deaths, Lynch's is shrouded in mystery. Although Lynch was found to have a lethal amount of nortriptyline in his system, the jail returned three unopened bottles of the medication to Fullen. How exactly did he overdose on pills that he never seemed to receive? How could he have obtained more than the recommended dosage to start? Fullen and her family have met with a lawyer to try to find out more answers and presumably to take the sheriff and county to court.
Fullen can't talk about her brother without crying. She apologizes profusely. We dance around the circumstances of why her brother was in jail in the first place, but at some point the question has to be asked. Even if you believe your brother was innocent, what would you say to people who have trouble sympathizing with the death of a convicted rapist?
"He was a human being entitled to basic rights. He had a family who loved him and missed him every day," she says. "His going to Lew Sterrett was a death sentence."