October 8, 2017 - Information filed in Shelby County District Court for abuse of official capacity implicates Sheriff Willis Blackwell in violating the law relating to his office by intentionally obtaining a personal benefit through said office.
The information was filed by Shelby County Attorney Gary Rholes on Thursday, October 5, 2017 and is in relation to a Texas Ranger investigation which began in January 2016 into the allegation of abuse of official capacity by way of keeping the Shelby County Sheriff's Department Command Center on a personal deer lease in Panola County, using materials from the Sheriff's Department evidence and using inmates to perform work on the lease including cleanup and performing welding work.
According to a Texas Ranger report, Texas Ranger Travis Brazil was first contacted by then Shelby County Chief Deputy Shad Sparks after he received the allegations from then Deputy Sgt. Derek Barbee. This was followed by Ranger Brazil being contacted by several other county officials, including Shelby County Judge Allison Harbison, who all provided varying pieces of information to Brazil such as the trailer had been photographed on the deer lease, and the Sheriff was allegedly using a Sheriff's Department utility vehicle for personal purposes.
Ken Florence, who was the District Attorney for Shelby County at that time, contacted Ranger Brazil who presented his evaluation of the allegations to Florence. It was requested first verbally by Florence the Rangers investigate the allegations and by way of a letter, which stated he would seek an indictment and prosecute any violations of Texas criminal law determined by the investigation.
Texas Ranger Ronald Duff, who has since retired but was in the Conroe Ranger office, was assigned to the investigation on March 23, 2016 and he interviewed Chief Sparks, Deputies Derek Barbee and Roy Bailey, as well as Sheriff Blackwell. Sparks indicated he did not have personal knowledge of Blackwell having taken inmates to his deer lease, only that he and the sheriff had previously had a conversation about possibly taking the trailer there for a fish fry and that the sheriff had taken the trailer there in 2015 where it remained. Sparks indicated Sheriff Blackwell informed him he had utilized pipe recovered by the Sheriff's Department and had taken trustys to his deer lease to work on a bridge.
According to the report, it was confirmed by Deputy Bailey during interview he had transported the trustys to the deer lease and had been to the property three times while on duty on work instructed by Sheriff Blackwell to be performed. Two of the occasions were to mow grass around the command center with mowers transported by Bailey from the Sheriff's Department and the third occasion was to tack pipe with a welding machine that had been found by the Sheriff's Department on an oilfield location.
It was also indicated in the report by Deputy Bailey, following Sheriff Blackwell's back surgery, he was instructed by Blackwell to use the same mowers to cut the grass at the sheriff's residence. Chief Sparks had indicated a black Jeep which had been awarded to the Sheriff's Department through a Federal investigation was kept at Blackwell's residence. Deputy Bailey was once required to go to the sheriff's residence and get the Jeep inspected, it was his understanding the Jeep was kept at the residence because it was used for undercover investigations. At the time Deputy Bailey procured the Jeep he saw the utility vehicle at the residence.
During his interview the report indicates, Sgt. Barbee recalled the date of the intended fish fry on the deer lease to have been July 30, 2015; however due to weather, the cooking instead took place at Sheriff Blackwell's restaurant near his residence. According to Barbee a substantial amount of pipe which had belonged to Devon Energy, and was kept in Sheriff's Department storage where evidence was normally stored, had gone missing from the Sheriff's Department. Barbee said he learned from a trusty the pipe was on the deer lease.
According to the report, Sheriff Blackwell told Ranger Duff he used his county issue vehicle to haul the command center to the deer lease where it stayed for three months. According to Blackwell, during that time the trailer was not used for anything and was once transported to Center for the Poultry Festival and was then returned to the deer lease. Blackwell stated the pipe had been magnetized and Devon Energy did not want the 14 - 15 pieces of pipe that had been recovered because it could not be sold, so the pipe was used around the Sheriff's Department. Blackwell informed Ranger Duff he had transported six or seven pipe joints in his personal truck and trailer to the deer lease in either September or October 2015 and the pipe was used for a bridge.
During his interview the report indicates, Blackwell admitted taking trustys to the deer lease once in addition to Deputy Bailey taking the inmates once, and that the welding machine was abandoned property kept at the Sheriff's Department. The report also says he admitted Deputy Bailey used a county vehicle and trailer to haul the welding machine to the deer lease.
The report indicated Blackwell explained he took the pipe to the deer lease because it was in the way at the Sheriff's Department and he had been weed eating around it for three years. In addition, the report says Sheriff Blackwell admitted the utility vehicle had been at the deer lease before and it had been utilized to put corn out at a hog feeder which, according to Barbee's statement, had been built by inmates at the Sheriff's Department.
It was indicated in the original investigation report, the investigation would be forwarded to the Shelby County District Attorney's office for prosecution. Ranger Hicks contacted the District Attorney's office where Stephen Shires is the current DA and "discovered the case was still under review by the District Attorney."
Letter to the Editor (Borders Questions Location of Mobile Command Center) (January 15, 2016)
Sheriff, County Being Sued Over Allegations of Misuse of Property, Retaliation (February 16, 2016)
District Judge Dismisses Whistleblower Case Against Sheriff (February 24, 2017)