The Miracle of 144th District Court

Bexar County Criminal DA Susan Reed
Bexar County Criminal DA Susan Reed
Bexar County Criminal DA Susan Reed

The sun was shining and the birds were singing as I rode my bicycle on that bright spring morning near my Bulverde home. A year had passed since my last drug bust at the hands of Sumner Bowen and the Alamo Area Drug Task Force, and I had been sober and drug-free for an entire year after joining a popular God-based recovery program.

I had violated a 10-year probated sentence for drug possession with that final arrest, and a probation revocation and sentencing hearing would be the inevitable end to my freedom. I had posted bond, and there was nothing more to do but wait.

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months as I waited to hear from the court system. Nothing happened as I attended daily meetings in the recovery program. I had heard nothing from my lawyer, and I told myself that I might be off the hook. Maybe my case just slipped through a crack in the legal apparatus. Apprehension turned into relief, and I had all but forgotten about the case when an unmarked sheriff’s car pulled my bicycle over in front of the Honey Creek Grocery Store at the intersection of Texas Highway 46 and Blanco Road.

I was arrested by deputies from the drug task force. My probation had been revoked and I was headed for jail to await a sentencing hearing before 144th District Court Judge Susan D. Reed, the toughest and most uncompromising jurist in the system when it came to drug cases. I was going before the “Hanging Judge,” as Reed was known to the criminal element. For some still unexplained reason, my paperwork had been mislaid until it landed on Reed’s court docket.

The Honey Creek Grocery no longer exists. It was a one-woman enterprise, owned and operated at the time of the arrest by my friend Mary Lou (Kelly) Gibson. Kelly and her friend Marcie Snyder were on the grocery front porch as I was being handcuffed. I recall Kelly wringing her hands in consternation. Kelly and Marcie agreed to take charge of my bicycle since I was headed for jail with no bond in the offing. I gave them a phone number for my son Grady. I also asked them to notify my Bulverde friend Sam Lowrey.

When we reached the Bexar County Jail, my incarceration education was to begin. I was first placed in a holding cell to await fingerprinting and other processing procedures. There was one other prisoner in the little cell, a middle-aged Hispanic inmate who must have weighed 300 pounds. Restroom facilities consisted of a sink and one barren commode sitting in the middle of the room.

I have never forgotten my horrendous introduction to captivity. The big boy was on the thunder mug, emptying his bowels with grunts and groans befitting a dying hippopotamus, and the gaseous stench from that monster shit filled that little holding cell like a Nazi gas chamber.

The prayer I uttered was simple and heartfelt: Oh Lord, get me out of here and I swear I will never do another drug or take another drink of alcohol for the rest of my life.

Everything seemed surreal as I was to spend the better part of a month behind bars. I was being hand searched every time I turned around. Damn it to hell. I was wearing an orange monkey suit and nobody gave a shit about my college degree and Pulitzer nomination. My smart mouth was no asset, and I soon learned the hard way to keep it shut.

The guard searching my person ran his hand too near my privates for my liking.

“I reckon you might be having fun doing that,” I smarted off.

The guard brought his fist into my crotch with sufficient force to take away my breath and any notion I might have had for further wise ass comment. It was an old-fashioned nut cracking worth remembering.

Welcome to the Bexar County Jail, Mr. newspaper columnist.

Social stratification has always been alive and well in the jail. It is a sort of caste system determined by the inmates. When I was jailed in the 1970s, the Texas prisons were over-crowded and many inmates were allowed to serve their prison sentences in county lockups. Hispanics were in the majority, followed by blacks, and then the whites like me who were the third largest in number.

I was one of the oldest of jail inmates at the time, and good fortune or maybe providence from the git-go provided me with a jailhouse angel known by one and all as the Wizard. He was a career Hispanic burglar whose Christian designation was Danny, but everyone in the jail referred to him simply as Wizard. And he looked like a wizard with sharply chiseled features and pointed goatee.       Since I was one of the oldest inmates on the cell block, Wizard christened me Pops and the appellation stuck. In jail jargon, Wizard was known as a “house man.” He had been in and out of jails and prisons for most of his adult life of 35-plus years, and he could get just about any substance delivered to his cell.

Discrimination was rampant in the Bexar County Jail in the 1970s. “Mayata” is the N word in Spanish, and Wizard was the first person I ever heard use it. My jailhouse indoctrination came from a concerned Wizard who took it upon himself to give me all the protection at his command.

Nodding toward a group of black inmates (they usually stayed grouped together when possible), Wizard said: “Pops, you need to know a few things if you are going to survive in here. Shit happens sometimes, and you need to be on the right side. It happens between the Chicanos and the Mayatas. You are a gringo and you white boys are the minority in jail. When the bad shit goes down, you need to be with us Mexicans. Not with the Mayatas. We always win because there are more of us.”

Conversely to the Wizard’s warning, my other good jail friend was a big black guy named Frank. Before the Wizard helped me get commissary money in my jail account, Frank generously shared his much-coveted Bugler tobacco and rolling papers with me. A murder-one parolee, Frank’s parole had been compromised simply because Frank had failed to report in person to his parole officer.

“Damn it, Frank,” I said. “How in hell could you fail to report when it meant you would go back to prison?”

Frank’s answer was almost typical of the jailbird whose apathy probably stems from a life with little hope or meaning.

“Hell, I didn’t go and report because I just didn’t feel like it,” Frank said. “I was out on the East Side frying me some bacon and eggs that morning I was supposed to report, and I just didn’t go in.”

Early on in my incarceration, Frank and I shared a cell, me on the top bunk and Frank on the bottom. I had heard scary tales of sodomy and gang rapes in the Texas prison system. I was nervous and on edge my first night in jail.

All prisoners had been racked up in their bunks when I called down to Frank in a loud whisper. I was jittery at this point.

I was trying to keep things light and in what I hoped would sound like a joking vein when I said, “Hey Frank, you awake?”

“Yeah, what do you want.”

Frank sounded like he was half asleep when I voiced my concerns of the night.

“I’m old and tough, and I would really be an awful piece of ass for anybody who might want to try,” I said.

Frank’s voice was loud enough to be heard all over the cell block.

“Goddamn it, Pops, will you shut the fuck up and go to sleep. There’s some of us in here trying to get some rest.”

The jail had pay phones when I was locked up, and when Wizard’s wife Rose called, he would put me on the line for one of Rose’s encouraging pep talks. I can all but hear her today.

“Everything is gonna be fine, Pops. You and Wizard will be out before you know it. I’m here keeping the home fire going. We will have us a big party at our house. Don’t you fret about it. TDC (Texas Department of Corrections) will be smoother than county, so keep your chin up. ”

The sobriety program that basically saved my life is a program that puts belief in a higher power before self-reliance, and I was intrigued when I saw the Wizard on his knees by his bunk making the sign of the cross.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Praying,” he said.

“Praying for what?”

“I’m praying to God for help doing my time.”

The Wizard explained that prayer and a positive attitude was all I needed.

“Look Pops,” he said. “You are looking at a 10-year sentence. With good behavior, you might do 18 months, maybe three years at the most. You can stand on your head and spear grapes with your tongue for 18 months. Time is just time. God will help you do it.”

The thought popped into my head and I verbalized it to the Wizard.

I asked him if he had ever considered asking God to remove the compulsion to     “Shit no,” he said. “That’s what I do for a living.”

That’s when the realization hit me.

I didn’t want to do prison time, with or without God’s help. And there I was, all but standing in the shadow of the state penitentiary. I felt like the late Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia on a Fast Train lyrics: I got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education, ain’t no need in y’all treatin’ me this way….

It seemed like an eternity before the day arrived for my sentencing hearing in Judge Reed’s court. I was in leg irons and my orange inmate jump suit when a county van transported me from the jail to the courthouse for the 9 a.m. hearing. The only visitor I had during my incarceration had been my oldest son Grady. Grady had picked up where the Wizard left off in supplying me with commissary money for tobacco and soap. Regular jail issue bath soap was like the cheap, scentless little slivers prevalent in flop house motels of that day. With commissary money supplied by my son, I was able to purchase real and wonderfully strong scented Irish Spring bath soap. I have Irish Spring in my bathroom today, an everlasting reminder of where I came from.

When the court bailiff called my case, reality sounded in my brain like a death knell.

I knew this was it. I was going to state prison for 10 years. My little Action Magazine would be no more. Could I survive in the prison population? I didn’t snitch when Sumner Bowen made his offer. If I got shanked to death, then I would get shanked to death. By God, I would not bend over and grab my ankles. My head was processing horror scenario after horror scenario, when the judge asked if the defense had any witnesses to present.

This hit me like a hidden land mine. I didn’t even know that favorable testimony from character witnesses might be possible, that such testimony could even mitigate the severity of a court sentence.

My lawyer friend Alan Brown was with me that morning, working pro bono and as surprised as everyone else when the first wave of volunteer witnesses started coming through the courtroom door. I later asked Brown why he hadn’t mentioned character witnesses to me and his answer was, “I was positive it would do no good. Susan Reed had never ruled for a multiple bond violator on drug charges. It just didn’t happen with her.”

My volunteer surprise character witnesses were entering the courtroom when Susan Reed issued her call for witnesses we might want to present. My first witness was writer friend Joseph Harmes, another member of the recovery group I was in. I was to later learn that it had been Harmes who mounted a telephone campaign through most of the night, rallying other potential witnesses from our substance abuse group who, as it turned out, were willing and even eager to help. They were all ready to testify that I had been sober for a year, and that I was ready to turn my life around.

I never knew the name of the diminutive prosecutor the district attorney’s office assigned to my case. He was short, balding, and snotty as hell, a bantam rooster with a sarcastic leer that looked like it had been stitched onto his mouth with fishing line. The hateful gash all but dripped with vitriol.

I recognized most of my witnesses as they entered the courtroom. My lawyer knew none of them. The courtroom was filling fast as other lawyers and a couple of curious judges joined the audience. The Sam Kindrick Circus was free of charge.

“Who should I call?” Brown asked me.

“Joseph Harmes,” I whispered.

When Harmes settled into the witness chair it was plain that the bantam rooster was in attack mode and ready to denigrate any witness we might call.

“What might I ask do you do for a living, Mr. Harmes?”

“I am a writer,” Joseph answered.

This evoked a veritable cackle from the prosecutor. It was almost a hoot of joy.

“A writer, eh. And would you tell this court, Mr. Harmes, exactly who you write for and where this so-called writing appears.”

Joseph has always had a poker face. And he didn’t move a facial muscle when he answered the prosecutor.

“Yes, sir, People Magazine.”

The rooster was incredulous. He was sneering openly.

“Are you telling this court, Mr. Harmes, that you write for the national publication People Magazine?”

“I do write for People,” Joseph answered. You can verify that by checking the magazine masthead. My name is in it.”

There was a collective gasp from the gallery, and then the courtroom fell silent as an Egyptian tomb.

“Next witness.”

Next came my friend Peter, another recovered alcoholic who, even at that time, was an accomplished upper echelon corporate attorney in the San Antonio and Bexar County legal system. Reed’s jaw seemed to drop when she recognized Peter.

“Don’t you practice law, and haven’t you worked in this court?” Reed asked the witness. “And are you telling the court that you are another of these alcoholics?”

“I am a recovering alcoholic,” Peter said, “and I am here to offer testimony which I hope can help this defendant.”

“Next witness.”

Then came Steve, a broker with the Dean Witter stock brokerage.

Following Steve was Roger, owner of two high-end Mexican restaurants.

The witness after Roger was the owner of one of San Antonio’s largest ambulance and medical supply companies.

If we had been given a month to assemble character witnesses, we could never have gathered together a group of people with the honest and obvious quality to match this bunch of recovering drunks and dopers. More potential witnesses were filing through the courtroom door when Judge Reed called a stop to the proceedings.

With both hands extended toward the audience, witnesses, and lawyers, Reed said: “We will stop all proceedings here. I have heard enough.”

The judge then shocked everyone concerned when she said, “I will take this case under advisement and make a final ruling one week from today.” She then recessed the court, and the rest is history.

She put me back on another 10 years of probation and I was free to go. There was no community service that I knew anything about, but Reed did have me report monthly to the adult probation department for urine samples over what turned out to be seven years.

There were some who believed a benevolent spirit of unknown origin entered Susan Reed’s body that morning, prompting her to cut me loose. My friend Madonna, who worked in the court system and knew Judge Reed personally, said, “I don’t know who that judge was who set you free after three probation violations, but I do know it wasn’t Susan Reed.” Others attributed my third probated sentence to a stroke of raw luck. I have always been prone to agree with those who called my stunning release The Miracle of 144th District Court.

It was an act of God, and I have always known it. I have since marveled that the Spirit of the Universe would favor me in such dramatic fashion.